Tag Archive: tea

5036-Blue Beauty Oolong_largeI grew up in the middle of nowhere in the Midwest, surrounded by forests and farmland. Consequently, I didn’t spend my childhood in the 1970s biking around the block with the neighborhood kids; instead, I spent a lot of time wandering in the woods with my dog and visiting my grandparents and my grandma’s sister who lived close by, just a short walk across a hayfield.

My grandma and her sister were tough old Finnish women, and when they weren’t having their next pot of boiled-on-the-stove coffee, they would have tea with me. That was my introduction to tea . . . in tea bags and steeped in boiling water, no matter the variety. I always took sugar, because I found tea to be a little bitter. Still, I liked it, unlike coffee, which I never acquired a taste for.

Flash forward to 1983. I spent my sophomore year of college in Birmingham, England. Some rather large spots of tea were consumed. I often had at least four cups a day: breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner. The tea was served English style, obviously, with milk and sugar. The tea itself was a basic black blend. I loved it. When I came back to the States, I continued drinking various teas. I still used tea bags and sugar.

Flash forward to 1998. We had just moved into a new house and at about the same time, a tea shop opened in our neighborhood, the TeaSource (where I now work part time; see my earlier post, “Unpredictable Staggerings and Other Life Choices”). I popped in one day and started chatting with the owner, Bill Waddington. In five minutes I learned more about tea than I had known for the quarter of a century I’d been drinking it. For instance, there is only one tea plant, and all the varieties of tea, white, yellow, green, oolong, puerh, and black come from it; it is how the tea is grown and processed that creates the different varieties. (The picture above is of the TeaSource’s fabulous Blue Beauty Oolong, one of my favorites.)

Another big revelation was learning about proper water temperature and steeping times. When my grandma and her sister had green tea, they boiled the bejeebers out of it like they did to their coffee. Green tea should be steeped in water no hotter than 180 degrees Fahrenheit, never boiling, which makes the tea bitter. And tea bags . . . tea bags are often made with tea dust (there are higher-end bags with whole leaves), basically what’s left over after the proper leaves have been prepared. There’s a time and place for the convenience of such bags, but that dust steeps a lot faster than actual leaves. And steeping tea for too long, black or green, will make it bitter.

In other words, I took sugar in my tea only because I’d been making it wrong! As I started trying various properly prepared teas at the TeaSource, I found that I didn’t need sugar. And no more tea bags for me, now I only want loose leaf. My next bit of fanaticism comes from being on the other side of the counter; we measure tea leaves by the gram when making a someone a cup or pot. It’s the only way to ensure consistency, as the variation in tea leaf styles—some are whole, some are finely cut—makes measuring by the “rounded teaspoon” largely subjective. Although I’ve been using the teaspoon method for sixteen years now, a couple months of using a scale has converted me, and I’m buying a small scale for home use.

A last word on sugar. I have become semiaddicted to chai, which is traditionally sweetened. As any tea fanatic will tell you, “chai” is simply the word for tea, but has become common shorthand for this particular way of serving tea with spices, milk, and sweetener. There are many ways of making chai, from easiest to traditional, but don’t confuse it with the chai lattes that coffee shops make. That is a steamed milk beverage with tea and spice flavoring, not a tea beverage with spices and milk. It can be a perfectly tasty drink, but they’ve inverted the base of the beverage from tea to milk. (This has been a very abbreviated chai lesson, glossing over some finer points, but you get the picture.)

In addition to sweetened chai, I still have a nostalgic fondness for English-style tea, so I occasionally have an English breakfast blend—loose leaf, of course—with milk and sugar. Other than that, I take my tea unsweetened. But the real last word on sugar is to use it as you like. I’m not going to tell you not to use sugar in your tea, but I will want to make sure that you’re not using sugar to mask incorrectly prepared tea!

[To keep this post from getting any longer, I’ve left out discussing herbal “teas,” which don’t actually contain tea leaves, and are more correctly called “tisanes” to make the distinction.]


ImageTwenty-eight years ago when I graduated college with the highly employable degree of Bachelor of Arts, English and Philosophy (the previous statement has been validated by the Sarcasmatron 9000), I just wanted to get some job I liked to pay the bills while I put most of my energy into my writing. That led to four years of working at a video rental store (there used to be these things called video rental stores) followed by four years of working at Barnes & Noble (there used to be these things called bookstores). I had a couple years at home unsuccessfully pursuing freelance work, and then became  employed as a stay-at-home dad for five years.

Shortly after I become a stay-at-home dad, we moved into a new house. About the same time we moved into the neighborhood, a tea shop, called TeaSource, opened up six blocks or so from our house, and I became a regular there, known to the people in the surrounding shops as “the guy with the baby in the stroller.” A couple times I proofed the TeaSource catalog and was paid in bulk tea. I did a lot of the editing of the true crime book Will to Murder there. The owner sometimes joked that I kept the shop open for the first year until business started picking up.

All during that time, from college through stay-at-home dad years, I was realizing a couple things. For one thing, as I did more freelance editing, I found that it didn’t wear me out on writing. I’d never considered a job in publishing because I thought working all day on editing would burn me out for my own writing. But that wasn’t the case. Another thing was that my writing wasn’t selling anyway. So when the kid started kindergarten, I took the plunge and got a day job as an editor. The following year I had a Star Trek story published by Simon & Schuster. Over the next several years I had two more stories and a novella published by S&S, and also had some small press success with short stories in a number of genres. Clearly, editing as a day job wasn’t hurting my writing.

When I was laid off last spring, I plunged into my freelance editing career. Or, rather, I plunged into trying to jumpstart my freelance editing career. It rapidly became clear I was not going to bring in the kind of paychecks I needed anytime soon. And although I had some good stuff going on with my writing, like my upcoming Trek eBook, I really needed to get a job.

There were two ways to go: get back into a full-time editorial position or reinvent my post-college strategy of getting some job I liked while, this time around, growing my freelance editing business and keeping the momentum going on my writing. I gave a shot at the full-time day job, but such positions are few and far between, and I didn’t get either of the positions I applied for.

So this brings us to my new job . . . I’m working part time at TeaSource! That’s just weird. For sixteen years I’ve been a customer, but now I’m brewing tea for people. I can walk to work, and, since I’m only working twenty-five to thirty hours a week, I’ve got good writing and editing time left over. I’m drinking lots of tea, I’m working on my steampunkish novel, and there are other various irons in the fire. It seems 2014 is going to be interesting . . . who knows which way I’ll stagger next.

I didn’t drink alcohol until I was in my midthirties. Didn’t have any ethical issue about it, I just never liked the taste of alcohol and didn’t see any need to force past that. In high school and college, watching friends occasionally partake of the excess of youth, drinking far too much and doing stupid things combined with vomiting, the appeal of drinking was lost on me.

Nevertheless, in my thirties I found myself growing more and more curious about wine. Some close friends were serious wine drinkers, talking the talk of nose and finish and mouthfeel and all the other esoterica that’s so easy to make fun of. I just didn’t get it, but it intrigued me.

Now let’s back up a few decades. I’ve always been a tea drinker. In my youth I wasn’t fanatic about it, but I enjoyed having a cuppa with my grandma. In college, when I spent a school year in England, my fondness for tea served me well. I drank tea a few times a day. After coming back to the States, I still had a cup now and then, but it wasn’t a huge habit.

Things started coming together about thirteen years ago. We moved into our new house and there was a tea shop in the neighborhood called TeaSource. I walked in and started chatting with Bill, the owner. In five minutes I learned more about tea than I had known in my entire life. He explained to me that there’s basically only one tea plant and all the varieties come from different aging and processing of the tea, as well as environmental differences that affect the taste depending on where the tea is grown. Because of that last fact, teas are often named after the region they come from, because their environment produces distinct qualities.

A light went on. “Wait, that’s like wine,” I said. From my friends, the wine drinkers, I’d learned that although there are more distinct varieties of grapes, the environment they’re grown is very important, and many wines are named after the regions they’re from. Suddenly I got something about wine that had always alluded me. It’s easy to be amused by fancypants wine talk, but simple old tea had allowed me to make a connection I could relate to.

I was a stay-at-home dad, so I put baby Ella in her stroller and went to the TeaSource almost daily. As I tried more and more teas and developed my palate, I understood more about the subtleties one can taste with some effort and practice. My wine curiosity grew. Then, a couple years later, when Ella was old enough that Sandra and I could take a short vacation without her, we went to San Francisco.

Enter The Godfather. As Francis Ford Coppola fans, we couldn’t be in San Francisco without eating at his restaurant. And there on the menu was a taster’s special for his wines. Four small pours of different wines, and you got to keep the glass. Seemed like it had to be done. As a neophyte, by the time I got to the Zinfandel, I was a bit overwhelmed. The zin just about knocked me out of my chair. So strong, so spicy. But when we got back home and told our wine-drinking friends, there was no looking back.

I quickly gravitated to cabs and zins, the strong stuff that knocked me for a loop at Coppola’s restaurant. It was a source of amusement to all my friends who’d known me as a nondrinker forever. And, with no tolerance, I felt silly in the melon after half a glass of high-alcohol zin. I discovered the appeal of a mild “social buzz” that was not taken to the regurgitating end that teenagers often do. But I do love the taste of wine.

Which brings us to the present. I have a wine fridge to keep my favorite reds in the low sixties, the proper serving temperature. I talk the wine talk some times, but still find it a bit silly. And that’s how I became a wine lover by drinking tea and watching The Godfather.