Saturday, October 08, 2016

Brewing on a Train

Recently I had the pleasure of roaming through Southern Utah- a geologic wonderland  of mouth gapingly spectacular rock formations.  However the hardness of the tap water meant generally unsatisfying brews and I just stuck to my summer assams and matcha in the morning even though I had optimistically brought a giant grab bag of puerh.   Drinking uninteresting teas in the morning was no sacrifice to partake in the visual marvels of Capitol Reef and Zion. 


Willis Creek Slot Canyon

We chose to return home from Salt Late City on a sleeper car on the California Zephyr - a long held wish of my husband to ride through the Sierra Nevada. After the utterly mind blowing scenery of Utah, I was underwhelmed by the endless stretch of pine trees.  While we traveled in benign comfort, early pioneers perished in traversing the treacherous gap of the Donner Pass.   Going West used to be an exceedingly dangerous enterprise and I am grateful the only fear I had was the worry of blowing the circuits with my electric tea kettle.  Our two seat roomette came with a standard 120 volt outlet and I happily had boiling water at my command.

I brewed matcha for myself in my thermos with vigorous shaking and oolong for my husband.  At higher altitudes, you have to boil for longer to compensate. But since oolong and matcha require lower brewing temperatures, a quick boil at ~7000 feet appeared to be just right.  Our taste buds tend to be less receptive at higher altitudes beyond 5000 feet so I had low expectations.  However the novelty of having my daily matcha latte on a train made me giddy.  

My German Unold kettle has been one of the top indispensable devices on this trip. Even though we had lodgings with full kitchens, those kitchens lacked a reasonable way to boil water.  Keurig machines are the norm now and the cabins were equipped with teflon pots which I normally avoid like the plague. I am so satisfied every time I use this kettle that all my minor complaints about it's bulkiness melts away.  My husband after a quick look said he could replace the hefty plug attached to a EU/US adaptor with a standard US electrical cord from the base. It is closed with a split head screw to prevent casual opening of the kettle so my husband said he'll make me a split head screwdriver tomorrow.  

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Chasing summer boba

Although the autumnal equinox does not fall until the 22nd of September this year, the end of August for me signals the end of summer. I may mentally dawdle a few days until Labor Day but I ruefully start my long preparations for winter stuffing my cheeks full of acorns and hiding them where ever I can.  

Mid-summer, my tea life took a sweeter turn when I inadvertently gave the boba tea genre a thorough shake.  The trauma of our ugly presidential election has scrambled my brain and I just need relief of any sort. 

The joy of boba with all the fixings is that it is pure liquid dessert.  When you are going to splurge, you want your loaded treat to be worth the sugar and fat.  The Boba Guys tout #nextlevelquality in their use of organic dairy and Grade-A tapioca balls. But somehow the taste does not snag my heart and yes I've tried their house-made almond and grass jelly. Their offerings are pretty good but not so amazing I'll go all the way across the bay for one because there is something leaps better in Berkeley.  

My dream beverage is the matcha latte with custard and taro chewies from Sharetea- a 25 year old chain originally from Taipei.  Sharetea just has that fun Asian flavor dialed in.  Adding the salty whipped creama is overkill.  

In downtown Oakland, the boba competition is fierce with 10+ shops competing in a three block radius. I would guess market saturation for these boba shops and it's to be seen if all of them can survive.  Most places have similar menus letting you modulate the sweetness and amount of ice.   I-Tea, the old town favorite which has bustling lines out the door, has an unbelievably harsh taste on their oolong.  I'm going to rate the newly opened Shiny Tea- another competing international franchise from Taiwan- as having the best roasted oolong milk tea and best tasting white pearls.   

Only ShinyTea appears to carry puerh options on the menu but the idea of a puerh macchiato creamed and sugared up does not tempt me in any way.  I would probably have to do a mini taste test at home with a shu to see if the combo is something magical or something kind of gross. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Grocery matcha

I consume a lot of industrial grade matcha- mainly in the form of matcha milk tea from Taiwanese boba joints around town. It's probably all low-end stuff grown in China which I am not particularly opposed to but I thought I would upgrade myself just a notch with some grocery store Japanese matcha make it exactly how I like it at home.  I like it milky so there's no point wasting ceremonial grade with matcha lattes.

Ceremonial matcha just isn't for me- too precious for my rustic tastes. But I love that grassy slightly bitter matcha flavor in desserts and even more so in a savory context.  In my early twenties, my favorite meal was rice swimming in usucha broth along with a side of turnip pickles, a lump of fatty braised pork, and a chinese tea egg.  Tea fads come and go in the tea closet and matcha has come around again.

My current matcha mission is to find a decent reasonable brand that I can buy locally at the grocery store.  I don't want to go overboard obsessively sweeping the internet so I limited myself to three local options out of 8. The problem with matcha is that the clock starts ticking the moment you snip open that shiny mylar bag.   If you don't finish it within a few weeks, that creeping stale soapy taste renders it unfit for consumption.  

I've been doing matcha milk tea three times a day all last week and I am somewhat surprised by the outcome.
  • Uji Tsujiri 宇治辻利 - $6.99 from Berkeley Bowl. My cheap and cheerful brand from my youth was this burgundy canister. I wasn't sure this is related to the global Tsujiri Matcha brand as their low end stuff tends to come in plastic packets. I was surprised how grassy and nutty this batch tasted- I don't remember it being this good a decade ago. Either it's an exceptionally good season or it's fresher than usual so I ran out and got 3 more canisters.  (and I wait and and wait for the Tsujiri branch to open in California...)
  • Mizuba "Daily" Matcha- was indisputably the best of the bunch but for $20 an oz, it better be. My sweet husband found this for me at at Umami Mart- a japanese kitchen boutique in downtown Oakland next to his prototyping shop.  It's pretty good- smooth dulcet flavors that offend no one. However I did not find it compellingly better than the Tsujiri for the price point and it's mildness actually made it less suited for creamy additives.  The Portland based Mizuba Tea Company is all about sharing the goodness of a 100 year old family farm in Uji so if you are into the feel good factor and don't mind the feel good premium this is a tea for you.  
  • Maeda-en Shiki Matcha : "Universal Grade" which is above their lowest end offering of culinary grade.  $10 from Tokyo Fish Market.  I did not want to get Maeda-en as I had a prejudice against Maeda-en being more of an industrial grade matcha, but judging by the expiry dates of other brands, this appeared to be the freshest on the shelf. Nonetheless, it was clumpy, bitter and astringent in an unpleasant way when consumed straight.  I was hugely regretful until I tried making a smoothie with a nino banana.  Like over-roasted coffee beans, the flavor shines through when mediated with a lot of fat and sugar.    While I would not buy this again, I was relieved that I found a way to consume this tea. I had been bummed out about having to trudge through even an ounce of bitterness.
So without too much fuss, I found a decent daily option in the Uji Tsujiri matcha.  I don't think I can find better at $7 per oz. for Japanese Uji matcha. I was contemplating Chinese versions to compare but I would have to get a mylar heat sealer as the Chinese versions come in pound sized bags.  I also think my matcha latte craze will blow over in a month and so the thought of committing to a pound of matcha hurts my head.

(My new tea pets you can tell from the holes in their mouths were born to serve a different function. But I grind my peppercorns and my sea salt granules are too fat to pass through such wee holes so theses frogs have been recommissioned to hang out among teacups and occasionally get doused with hot water. )

Thursday, June 30, 2016

When a gaiwan cracks...

I know what you must be thinking. Despite appearances, I did not procure this tea set for the Game of Thrones finale.  My husband had recently cracked my white porcelain gaiwan- his story is that I set a booby trap for him in the kitchen cabinet. When your most functional gaiwan is randomly felled by a steamer basket, there is only one way to go.  Tea hoarders tend to overcompensate- where's the fun replacing like for like.

I saw these wondrously weird slip cast beasts where else but on eBay.  The trouble with my plain gaiwan was that it did not add any "feels" to a tea session.  But when you have tea or water pouring out of a furry dragon's maw, it's all "feels".   I probably would not drink out of a vessel with European dragon motifs- the gold hoarding virgin-abducting malignant man killer angle is a total buzzkill.  But I am all for the Eastern dragon as a benevolent symbol of strength and wisdom.

I actually use the cha hai for cooling down water for making matcha...  matcha latte...  but that is for another story.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Cabinet Aged Nilgiri

By the virtue of being a tea hoarder, my tea cabinets hold various unintended experiments in aging.  I was eyeing my recent load of India teas wondering about the deadline for optimum consumption. The Charles A. Bruce 1838 FAQ mentions 3-4 years for hongcha which is too brief a span for someone like me. Then I remembered I had a teaspoon of 12+ year old Nilgiri orange pekoe stored in a plastic baggy that a Russian colleague and tea-lover shared with me sometime between 2002-2004.

India teas are not meant to be aged but this does not mean one cannot drink such an aged tea- at worst it will be stale and flat. The first sniffs of the tea leaves in a warmed pot before brewing were faint dark sweet notes of dried plums.  The taste was surprisingly pleasant and the leaves  gave forth 3 good rounds.  The brew you can see is browned from the decade of oxidation- fresh Nilgiri tends to have more reddish coppery hues.  Because I have no taste memory of the original fresh brews,  I can't claim an improvement or a decline.  I have to take it for what it is here and now.

This aged sample is good but not so amazing that I want to order kilos for aging.  Of course this is but one data point.  When searching the web for more, I see MarshalN (that guy is everywhere) also had an inadvertent aged darjeeling experiment of 5 years where he enjoyed more positive effects. But perhaps 5 years is a more optimum ceiling for aging such teas.    I'm not explicitly going out of my way to age these India black teas, but I will happily drink aged black teas and hongchas I've forgotten about.

Nilgiri tea is produced South India at higher elevations than Darjeeling- the most interesting Nilgiri are the winter plucked "frost teas" that have a peppery tone.  I am happy there remains tea genres I have not yet tried and I want to save the experience.  The younger me would have ordered them long ago but now I can value the preciousness of being able to experience new things.