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. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

India Black Teas

Egads! What am I doing with 70 samples of India teas?   For various pathological reasons, I have been drinking a lot of subpar bagged English blends in the morning.  I fell into a strange dichotomy. Whereas I will spend some serious mental energy selecting, brewing, obsessing over China teas,  I treat India teas as a basic commodity like milk that I grab off the supermarket shelves.

I cannot reliably start the day without a dark tea- my brain needs something uncomplicated and strong to wake up.  China hongchas (imperial dianhongs, lapsang souchong), shus and darker roasted yanchas and oolongs have become too mentally stimulating on a weekday and so I have reverted to India black teas as my morning workhorse tea.   I'm not trying to overturn my sinophile bias but I want to put a moderate amount of effort finding a supplier in India for higher quality leaf.

Drinking ageable China teas like puerh reflexively engage my prefrontal cortex from early conditioning. For the first few years of drinking puerh, most sessions became a fatiguing and somewhat frustrating exercise in long term planning. My mind was constantly evaluating aging/hoarding potential of a tea. Even if I want to, it's nigh impossible now to turn my analytical brain off with such teas.  But for India teas, I am blissfully immune.  Pretty good India teas are readily available so I just drink it and enjoy.  

I have been recently trying to avoid decision fatigue in the morning in an attempt to simplify my life.  Our decision making ability deteriorates with each choice made throughout the day regardless of importance and you don't want to blow your cartridge too early on inconsequential matters.  My husband wisely has only two different kinds of socks while yours truly considers socks an integral part of a fully color coordinated outfit and hence I make terrible late night purchasing decisions. A box of 70 tea choices could potentially wreak havoc.  However I find that because I am laid back about India teas,  I randomly pick something and am generally satisfied.  I just keep a booklet of gold stars and smiley stickers in the box to keep track of which teas stood out.

I had planned to try out a different India based vendor like teabox but got lazy and went again with Vahdam/Golden Tips as they carry a much larger selection of samplers.   In my second order, I got the summer flush sampler,  Assam party pack,  a chai sampler, various Earl Greys, and some Nilgiri.  The experience has been an altogether a pleasant way to drop a hundo- and really you could not get this kind of variety and quality with China teas for a hundred.

Egads! What am I doing with a mass produced slip-cast teapot lithographed with songbirds? It's probably a few decades too early for me to be going in this direction.  One late ebay night,  I found this English Heron Cross teapot for my husband to commemorate a pair of wrens nesting in our backyard. I excitedly mistook a mating pair of thrushes illustrated on the bottom to be wrens. Even with this misidentification, the husband (a bird lover) could not help but approve this pot after an obligatory interrogation on why we needed another pot.