Slow Steep

I left my notebook with my notes on the last panel from Geek Girl Con at home, so I asked if anyone on Twitter had any topics they wanted to hear me riff on. The lovely Brenna Layne, who has been doing a #HereBeDragons run of late, asked me to write about tea.

My first response was, ME? Write about tea? But I know noooothing. I mean, what about Lauren? She’s so much more knowledgeable. Or all these other people I follow on Twitter. Or the people at Smith Teas. Or Remedy. Or or or …

So I’m going to stop quailing and tell you a few things about me and tea. I am at least an expert on that.

Fudouin in Koya-san - tea service

Brenna asked me how I got into tea. Now I have to dig into the archives. Like many decisions I’ve made, it started as a negative: I didn’t like coffee. I couldn’t tolerate caffeine. But I went to college in the Frozen North (otherwise known as Ohio, just west of Cleveland). It was cold. Oh so cold. And I started drinking tea to stay warm. I think the inside of my lower lip was permanently scalded from about November to March. Bigelow Tea bags. The lemon flavored one. That was my tea of choice. Hot, flavored water.

After college I moved to Seattle, The Land of Coffee Drinkers. The birthplace of Starbucks. I even applied for a job there, as a barista, but didn’t get very far when they found out I didn’t like coffee. Think of how much I would have saved the company in the drinks I wouldn’t consume!

So for the last twenty years or so I’ve been an erstwhile tea drinker. I had a basket for loose leaves, but I never paid attention to the water temperature or really much about the leaves, other than that they were loose.

All that changed a few years ago when I met my friend Lauren Hall-Stigerts. Lauren and I met at this time of year, at an unconference. We immediately bonded over many things, one of them being tea. Lauren loves the greens. I keep trying them, like some people do with certain vegetables, but for the most part, they leave me cold. My impression from hanging out with the tea people I know is that greens and oolongs and pu-ers are the prized teas. There’s not much noise made about blacks or whites.

Somewhere in this period I had some tea from Smith Teas. In many ways I feel like I have an undistinguished palate, but Oh. My. God. This was TEA. I mean, when I sipped my first cup from them, I tasted something. It wasn’t just flavored water. There was so much more going on. This was their bagged tea, and if you know anything about bagged tea, it’s usually the leavings. Broken leaves swept up unceremoniously and dumped into those hideous bags. Like the Red Rose tea my Canadian grandmother drank. Smith’s bags are the “pyramid” sachets, with full leaves. This was another story altogether. Another world.

So I started buying whole leaves from a tea shop around the corner. That was a couple of years ago and I haven’t looked back. I made more connections on Twitter, and we shared our favorite teas with each other, furthering my explorations. Last year my mom got me an electric kettle with variable temps. I USE IT EVERY DAY. I love it.

Here’ s what I’ve discovered:

  • I love fruity, malty, and bitter, which is why I love IPA beers so much, too.
  • I like my tea straight, unadulterated. Some blends and teas are meant to take cream or milk, like Earl Grey. I just like the flavor of the tea, and while I used to like flavored teas, I’m finding them less appealing.
  • Among the world of blacks, I’ve said Yunnan is like the champagne of tea. It’s perfectly black, and the bitterness is balanced by a delicate apricot flavor. Keemun has a harsher flavor, as well as smoky. I heard someone else describe Assam as a velvet fist. I had to laugh, because it’s very smooth, but really packs a punch in terms of the caffeine.
  • Turns out there is technically one green tea I like: hojicha, which is sometimes referred to as bancha or twig tea. It’s the twigs and stems from the camellia sinensis and they are roasted. And there’s an oolong from Smacha Tea called Red 27 that is similarly roasted and that is a revelation. If you ever have the chance to try that one, do it.
  • I just realized I didn’t say anything about Darjeeling. Like oolong, it’s too slippery or something. It doesn’t hit that pleasure center for me. Just cruises right on by.

As much as I love the flavor of tea, I also love the ritual, the quietness, and the connections I’ve made.

What do you like to drink? Given what you know about my tea tastes, what should I try next?

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4 thoughts on “Slow Steep

  1. Brenna

    I love hearing your tea story, Jill! Thanks for writing about it. I’m right there with you–not a coffee drinker, not really that in love with green tea, and like my looseleaf without any junk in it. And the variable temp kettle is truly a thing of beauty!

  2. Rebecca

    What a great post! I love hearing about tea in a world where so much is said about coffee (which I don’t like either). There are a couple tea blends I enjoy, but mostly I like a pure leaf, loose leaf, brewed at the right temp for the right amount of time. I love a strong, smooth black tea first thing in the morning with a little bit of honey. And then later in the day, oolongs and jasmines are my favorite. And I also love the toasted barley tea we get at our local sushi place. And, mostly, I think, I love the way slows things down for me for a moment… the ritual (as you said), of warming the mug, heating the water, choosing the tea, spooning out the tea, pouring the water, watching the leaves expand….

    1. slowbloom Post author

      Thanks Rebecca!

      Maybe my problem is I’ve been trying to drink oolongs at the wrong time of day! More and more I like doing things that take attention and focus. Or maybe a better way of saying it is things that I can immerse myself in, if I so choose. And tea is definitely one of those invitations.

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