Saturday, July 31, 2010

Tea in Madison, Wisconsin

I've decided to move to Madison, Wisconsin. I've been struggling with finding a place to live for some time. Since, right now in my life, a lot of the things I do I can do from anywhere, I've wanted to really search for a place that fits with my values and what I want out of life. I've suspected for quite some time that the midwest holds the key. I recently took a road trip to the midwest and visited friends in a number of cities.

I had the striking conclusion that I really like most of the cities in the midwest. I liked a lot Chicago, certainly much more than I like any other large cities in the U.S., and I liked Minneapolis and St. Paul a lot too. But I really fell in love with Madison. There are many things I like about Madison, including a focus on sustainability among the city and state government, university, and residents of the city, and a lower cost of living than most of the east coast. But the thing that really draws me to Madison is that it is one of the few cities I have found that has a truly vibrant culture of young, highly-educated people, but that is not caught in the trap of the fast-paced, high-achievement, "work hard play hard" culture of the east coast. To some degree, I found that this same statement applies to the other cities I visited, such as Minneapolis / St. Paul, and even to Chicago (when comparing it to New York or D.C.).

Here on the east coast, there's a palpable "brain drain" into the big cities like D.C., New York, Boston, and to some degree Philadelphia. These places all feel too much for me...too status-driven in particular. I am a community-driven person: I value friends and family over career advancement, status, or money. On the east coast, I feel constantly at odds with the dominant culture, constantly in a minority, because of my values. While I have made many friends here, the people I connect with most all seem, like me, to be somewhat marginalized. In Madison, and in the midwest in general, by contrast, I found that the people I connect with the most genuinely love where they are living, and are really integrated into the culture and communities in which they live in a way that I simply do not find here on the east coast. So this made me decide to move...the more I talked to people the more I knew I needed to move.

Tea in Madison:

While in Madison, I went to Dobra Tea, a small tea shop on State Street (Dobra tea also has a location in Burlington, VT, for reference):

First of all, I want to say that State Street is wonderful. It's about a half mile of densely-packed storefronts, almost all small, independent businesses. The businesses extend onto side streets too. Perhaps most importantly, the street is blocked off to car traffic, although buses are allowed to come down the street. It's like a powered-up version of a classic Main St. In my opinion, every city and town would be greatly enriched by a setup like this.

The Tea:

With two friends, we ordered a pot of Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe). In retrospect, I kind of wish we had opted for the Gong Fu brewing, but we did not. The result was still very good. The staff brewed and poured the first infusion, and gave us a pot of hot water over a burner with instructions on how to make subsequent infusions. We made three infusions.

Each infusion was remarkably unique. The first was very aromatic, with some roast and floral tones, an overall deep quality, and completely smooth: absolutely no bitterness or astringency, and in general, very little flavor--just a very bold, complex aroma. The second infusion was totally different: it was pleasantly bitter and astringent. It had a bite to it and was much more full-bodied. The third infusion, oddly, was completely unlike the first two: it was very sweet, and had almost no bitterness or astringency, and yet was still very full-bodied and rich; the aroma was subtle and more like honey or caramel, but still with a hint of the roast from earlier infusions.

This tea fascinated me due to the fact that the second infusion was more bitter than the first or third, and the sweetness only emerged in the third infusion. I wish we had had time to explore a fourth or more, because there was much flavor left in the tea, but we were on a schedule and had to get on our way at this point. This was my first experience with Da Hong Pao, but I am convinced that this was a quality tea.

Other Tea in Madison:

It is also interesting to note that Cha Cha Tea is located here; although the business is mail-order only, it does supply tea to various restaurants. I saw their teas for sale in Brasserie V, a restaurant in Madison, although I did not try anything.

So, I'm going to be somewhere where there is an active tea culture--substantially more than the small town I currently live in. That's exciting. And Chicago isn't too far away, and there's a lot of tea happening there too!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Road Trip to the Midwest

I'm going on a road trip...the path so far is Cleveland -> Lansing -> Chicago, and from there, probably Madison -> Twin Cities, likely Iowa at some point. I may stop at other cities and towns in between. And I may stop to see some natural areas, because I love nature.

Tea is not the main purpose of the trip...but if anyone has any recommendations of places I might like to stop to buy or enjoy some tea, please let me know.

The main purpose? I just can't get enough of the Midwest. The East Coast gets to me sometimes, with its fast pace, competitiveness, and high cost of living. It just doesn't feel like home to me, even though I grew up near it, in Lancaster, PA. I lived in Ohio for college and 3 years afterwards, and it seemed considerably slower-paced and less competitive, and also from visiting elsewhere in the midwest I have gotten that vibe too.

I have dreams of moving to the midwest at some point. Right now, I just want to travel around a bit, visit some friends and family, and get a feel for different places. Also, I have never been in Wisconsin or Minnesota, and I would like to see those states. I would like to find a place to live, in the long-run, that has a vibrant community, but is more laid-back. Sometimes, on the east-coast, I get frustrated with how a lot of intelligent young people are drawn into cities like DC, NYC, Boston, all of which seem too fast-paced, have a high cost of living, and a little bit of a workaholic culture. I'd like to find a place where people work less, spend more time with friends and family, and are less competitive, but where there is still an active and vibrant culture with a lot of young people.

Thoughts? On tea? Or on places to live, or just pleasant places to visit?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Acquiring Tastes for Tea, especially Oolongs

I am somewhat fascinated by the idea of acquired tastes. An overwhelming majority of my favorite food and drink is made up of things that I did not enjoy the first time I tried them. I used to be a very picky eater. Now I am eager to try all sorts of crazy new foods, vegetables, herbs, spices, and new combinations...I'm always seeking new flavors, and I'm often eager to keep trying something that has a strange aroma that I don't enjoy at first.

Teas that I thought had an "Acquired Taste":

The biggest teas here are mid-oxidized oolongs. I've noticed this most with Amber oolongs from Taiwan, and moderately oxidized / moderately roasted Tie Guan Yin or Se Chung oolongs. These teas all have in common that they tend to have woody qualities in the aroma, and they also retain some of the vegetal and herbaceous tones of their greener counterparts, yet these qualities have little in common with the vegetal qualities of green tea. Some teas in these categories grew on me as I drank them, and I also found that I have come to appreciate the overall style of amber oolongs and mid-roasted, mid-oxidized oolongs more over time, in contrast to the darker oolong, which I have always liked, and the greener oolongs, which I hadn't tried until more recently but was able to appreciate more readily.

I've found this effect to be even more pronounced in the greener Darjeeling oolongs, which, from my experience, tend to have a strong vegetal aroma. Two that come to mind are Arya Topaz, which I actually disliked upon drinking the first cup. It is not a favorite of mine, but I have enjoyed subsequent cups more more--even brewing them the exact same way. My favorite Darjeeling oolong, Soureni organic oolong from Fresh Darjeeling Tea, I actually liked upon drinking the first cup--but I also found that this tea grew on me. I went back and inched the ratings up on these teas over time, as I drank subsequent cups.

I've also experience this phenomenon with other teas, including a few black teas and a few green teas, but it's not as strong as with these oolongs.

Have any of you acquired tastes for types of tea you didn't enjoy upon the first cup?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Dancing While Waiting for the Water to Boil

We all wait for the water to boil when we make tea. I've been inspired by Joie de Tea's posts on Useful things to do while you wait for the kettle to boil, to share what I do when I wait.

I am really into swing dancing and blues dancing...I dance regularly in Philadelphia, at Lindy and Blues, and I've also started Cuppa Swing, a Dance in Newark, Delaware, for when the University of Delaware is not in session and their swing club is not having dances, like during the summer.

So what do I like to do when I wait? I like to dance...with or without music. Sometimes I'm practicing moves or movement, or doing exercises related to movement--I sometimes practice isolations, isolating one part of your body in motion while holding the rest of your body still, as I find this challenging. Other times I'm just grooving out. It's even possible to do the shim sham (a swing line dance) while waiting for the water to boil.

What do you do while you wait for the water to boil?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Review of Home-Grown Orange Mint

It's summer, so it's time for yet another review of a home-grown herbal tea. Why do I review things that you can't buy? Because they're amazing, and I want to encourage people to grow their own herbs too. And perhaps someone will be inspired to start their a business selling herbs mint, like many mints, grows out of control in humid temperate climates; the only work involved is in harvesting and drying it. I would love to see a world where more herbal teas are produced locally, in small batches like the one I am reviewing here.

In a post from march titled Four Herbal Teas You May Not Know About, I introduced orange mint and showed the picture on the right, orange mint as it was just sprouting in my garden. Orange mint is a varietal of peppermint which has been cultivated for its unusual aroma--very different from peppermint. It is easily distinguished from peppermint on sight by its very rounded leaves, whereas peppermint tends to have strongly pointed leaves.

The Harvest:

Normally I use orange mint in blends with other mints, as it is decisively non-minty, but I decided to keep some of it separate so I could enjoy it on its own, have a sense of what it contributes to a blend, and of course, so I could write this review!

Unfortunately, I did not have a camera when I harvested this mint, so there are no pictures of what the plant looks like fully grown. It was harvested from a mixture of my own garden and my parent's garden in Lancaster, PA. Both were harvested on June 20th, and I dried them in my apartment, spreading the leaves out on a table in a warm, dry area away from direct sunlight.

The mint from both yards are grown in partial shade and moist, rich soil with loose leaf litter, making the leaves broader and thinner than plants grown in full sun. I have no idea how this affects the quality of tea, but for use as fresh herbs, I strongly prefer shade-grown mints.

The Review:

I used about 2 tablespoons of dry leaf per cup, which is probably only about 2-3 grams because the leaf was very coarse. I brewed this tea for 8 minutes, using boiling water.

It came out a rich amber color, very clear. The aroma is strongly and pleasantly vegetal and herbaceous, with much of these qualities shared in common with other mints (like spearmint or peppermint) but this one lacks the characteristic (and often overwhelming) minty aroma. There is also a fairly strong orange presence, especially in the finish. Initially it's more subdued, like the aroma of candied orange peel, but upon drinking the whole cup it becomes noticeably fruity and suggests sweetness. By the end there are noticeable tones of peach and apricot. There's also a little spicy quality throughout, similar to holy basil or tulsi, but much less pronounced.

The flavor is smooth...this is mostly an aromatic tea. There is little bitterness, sourness, or astringency, although, like many mints, the bottom of the cup is very slightly more bitter and astringent. There is some sweetness. Compared to other mints, I found this one less bitter, which surprised me because the fresh herb is quite bitter.

I actually found it surprising how much the aroma of this tea resembled orange. The fresh leaves do not suggest orange to me at all, and rather, suggest basil. I have even had people tell me that they thought they were eating basil, when I used fresh orange mint in cooking or in a salad. I frequently make tomato salads, substituting orange mint for basil, and often, people are fooled, and sometimes don't even believe me when I tell them I'm using a form of mint and not basil. But upon drinking this cup, I am convinced that this variety of mint is well-named.