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Another Post About Tea

Thrack often listens to gaming or gaming adjacent podcasts, and between driving around together or putting it on while cooking or whatever, I end up hearing snatches of them fairly often.  Recently someone sent in a question for the Tested podcast about a desire to get into tea.  And their advice was utterly abysmal and filled me with sadness.

There was some waffling over whether an awesome teamaker was worth the cost (fair enough if you don’t really love tea), and some good advice about being careful about the precise temperature of the water to get the best result with leaves, but then they yielded to the supposed expertise of Gary Whitta.  I’m sorry, but no, listening to what he said, Gary is not “into tea” by any stretch; he’s just English and there’s a huge difference.

I’m not saying that all his complaints are wrong because when I look at the tea section of any normal grocery store, I’m surrounded by boxes of teabags where only a third of them could even be rightfully considered tea in the first place.

What kind of tea do you want?

There’s more than one kind?

We have blueberry, raspberry, ginseng, sleepy time, green tea, green tea with lemon, green tea with lemon and honey, liver disaster, ginger with honey, ginger without honey, vanilla almond, white truffel, blueberry chamomile, vanilla walnut, constant comment and… earl grey.

Did you make some of those up?

That’s a completely valid complaint, and frankly one I’ve made myself.  But that doesn’t mean that simply coming from a place like the United Kingdom grants you immediate expertise in tea, and it certainly doesn’t mean that because you have a box of PG Tips in your cupboard, you are “into tea.”  (I can get boxes of it loose in my local American grocery store, next to better teas like this loose assam.)

If you want to say that your nation’s approach to tea is superior because there is some sort of standard cup of tea that’s marginally better than a bag of black Lipton, that basic cup of tea really has to be noticeably better.  Just to make sure I could say this, I picked up a box of loose PG Tips tea at my local supermarket to see if it’s a significant improvement.  PG Tips is sort of strange to me on a basic level because I expect tea of a certain caliber to tell me what the hell it is.  “Black” is not a sufficiently descriptive type of tea, but is instead simply a broader category in which types fall.  So already I was suspicious of PG Tips because it’s a blend of a bunch of different types to maintain a consistent taste batch to batch and year to year.

I’ve come to the conclusion that PGs is the tea equivalent of diner coffee.  You can’t be into tea if you think this is the shining example of good tea.  Bah, humbug.

To begin with, the tea leaves (although they’ve called “loose”) are crunched and homogenized such that they make a too-fine consistency.  It means you have to treat them with particular caution that you don’t with good normal loose tea.  The results are consistently more bitter and strong than the alternative, which means I have to reduce the steeping time on a wondrous device designed to produce optimum flavor with minimum bitterness.  I like strong tea, but when your tea produces more bitterness that other loose blacks, there is something wrong.  I’ve discovered that steeped leaves from PG tips look disturbingly like coffee grounds rather than rehydrated leaves after you let them infuse; that makes me feel like there is just something wrong with them.

So I have determined that my box of PG Tips is fit only to make iced tea, which I sweeten anyway and then pour over a full cup of ice (which has the benefit of diluting the bitterness further).  I’m far more impressed by a couple lovely loose teas I’ve picked up from the grocery store that are delicious but also tell me what the hell sort of leaves are in them.  I don’t always feel like the same type of tea, and if I’m in the mood for a darjeeling, or an oolong or a ceylon or whatever, I want to be able to group teas by their flavor.

Plus I really don’t feel like the standard cup of tea you’d have in England with the requisite milk and sugar represents a terribly sophisticated tea palate.  A cup like this with milk and sugar is very nice and has its place, but I find as I get older (and especially now that I can make truly exceptional tea with my infrastructure) that sweetening it much at all masks too much of the flavor of the tea.  There are several teas that I don’t sweeten at all because they simply don’t need anything else.

I think I’m going to make myself some ceylon now.

Just Sell Me The Tea and Shut Up

It’s long been established that I love tea.  Especially properly brewed loose leaf tea.  It’s delicious and soothing and just all around awesome.  When doing our Christmas shopping in the mall a few weeks ago, Thrack and I came across a brick and mortar location for Teavana, so obviously there was no choice but to go in.  We’re having a pretty low key Christmas in terms of gifts, because we’re sleeping on the big gift of the year already.

They had samples which were okay, but so sweetened that I could hardly taste anything.  Ugh.  And the damn sales clerk did something that immediately pressed all my irritation buttons: preached alt med wellness bullshit.  She took me from being happy and predisposed to buying a decent sampling of teas to being annoyed and wanting to get rid of her so I could get my couple of teas and get the fuck out of the store.

I usually love browsing teapots and assorted bits and bobs even though I really don’t have any intention of buying more stuff because I like the aesthetics.  Hell, the look is why I bought my little Japanese cast iron kettle in the first place (although I bought mine in a California import shop rather than a tea shop, I think).

So when the clerk kept trying to sell me on tea because of amorphous health benefits and not so subtly tried to upsell me to one of their cast iron pots (because I already possess the best electric tea makers in existence, made by Breville and Zarafina), I  was ready to yell at her.  I know it’s her job and she probably doesn’t know a goddamned thing about why alt med bullshit is either harmful or pointlessly expensive or both, but you don’t push this kinds of shit on people so hard or you lose sales.  It made me far less inclined to go back as well, even though I was impressed with the quality of the leaves (just the smell is intoxicating).

She tried and interesting tactic on the cast iron pot.  Even though I had told her I already had a cast iron pot (seriously, how many does a person need?) and that I would much rather have tea made to the right temperature for the type of leaf in my Breville, she tried to tell me the cast iron was better for me.  (It’s not, for two reasons I’ll talk about.)

First, you really only get benefits of cooking with cast iron if you’re iron deficient, whether from diet or your body’s processing of iron on a basic level like my Grams.  I don’t have problems with iron saturation in my body, so there is no health benefit supported by evidence.

Secondly, all their fucking iron teapots are enameled inside, so you don’t get any benefit at all, even if you need it.  Strike three, you’re out annoying sales clerk.  So maybe I’ll go back to give them one more chance when it’s not Christmas madness or maybe I’ll stick to getting loose teas from my previous sources where they don’t lie to me about imaginary benefits.  Even if they do think they give some magical benefit, they don’t proselytize and I can live with that.

Great Architecture, New Architecture and Good Food

Thrack and I went to the new Whole Foods store at Trolley Square finally.  I was very impressed, but I’ll get to that part later, because now that I’ve actually been inside the building, I want to talk about the redevelopment too.  If you do not care about buildings because architecture/old stuff is boring and stupid and I’m a crazy person (very possible), just skip down to where I’ve bolded a heading about the food itself.

When I first heard about the decision to put in a really large Whole Foods at the historic Trolley Square, I was a little concerned about the impact on the mall, but I was more confused about how the company would manage the difficulty of having two stores much too close together.  To be fair, it wasn’t on purpose, but they signed on to put in the new building at Trolley just before they acquired the Wild Oats company, which operated a store just North of the location.  Everything I had heard was that the smaller store lease was a long-term ground lease that the landlord was opposed to buying out early.  But as it turned out, they were finally able to terminate the lease on the smaller store as they opened the new location (wondering how much the lease buyout was).

For those who don’t live here in Salt Lake, the little mall at Trolley Square is a charming local redevelopment of the beautiful old trolley barns in downtown.  It’s one of the redevelopments of older buildings in Salt Lake that I’m very grateful for, because it makes for a quirky shopping center with a great sense of history; malls so often feel generic and impersonal and Trolley Square is anything but that.  One thing I had always loved was how some tenants of the mall really embraced the whole concept of the property.  It’s closed now, but there was a little tavern that operated within a trolley car parked outside; and the Old Spaghetti Factory has an old trolley car in the restaurant for themed seating as well.  The Simon Malls Property Group picked the property up ages ago and has put funds into the infrastructure in recent years, most importantly the parking, which had always been a bit tricky.

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Random Updates on Stuff

Beaky, our Nanday conure is being unusually weird lately.  Every so often he goes through a phase where he wants attention, wants people to be with him, but absolutely refuses to come out of his cage when you open the door.  He will get puffy (in an enticing, not threatened way) and climb up near or into his pouch, as if he wants us to join him.  Now, it could be a hormonal mating-thing (although he does it with both Thrack and me), but it seems pretty early in the year for the it’s-spring-time-for-sexy-nesting stuff.  It seems sometimes that figuring out what the hell your parrot wants is impossible, since he gives one clue, and then completely changes his behavior when you give him what it seems he’s after.  He’s also been more prone to screaming for attention lately, which itself makes you want to take your normally loving, endearing companion critter and drown him.  Of course, when he does come out, he’s as busy, inquisitive and stubborn as ever.  As you can see, getting on the coffee table is the best thing to ever happen because there’s all this stuff to play with.  He’ll climb around and touch, move, push, pick up and bite various objects, then (in true parrot fashion) bend over to stare at his feet for 20 seconds as if they’re fucking magical.

Oh, and a quick note on the pouch I mentioned.  We use the medium size of Multipet’s “Happy Hut” in green).  It’s one of the first things we got when we first got Beaks because lots of bird guides advise when selecting/setting up a cage that you make sure a bird has a place that feels especially safe (the same reason you should steer clear of cylindrical cages or putting a cage against a window all the time).  It’s proven to be a very, very good product as it’s safe, soft and allows him a way to stay warm in chilly weather if a room gets drafty.  He’s gone through a few over the years (he gnaws on them a little at a time).  He also has a tendency to pet and rub the fluffy edge while inside it, then viciously bite at the edges without warning.  Birds are weird.  The one he currently has in his cage has a small hole directly in the middle where you can feel the cardboard bottom; I’ll probably replace it in a few months, but for now, it’s doesn’t have any snags or threads his feet could catch on, so I leave it alone.

So one of the teas I bought the other day is one I’ve completely fallen in love with.  The Republic “All Day Breakfast” is fantastic; it’s oolong based, unusual for a breakfast tea and I love it.  Unfortunately, it’s one of their limited edition runs and so it will be gone before long.  I’m sad.

I’ve also realized that our current count of encoded movies/series (right hand bar) is now out of date.  I may work on a running inventory page later.


Delicious Tea

Since I had taken my old Zarafina tea maker to work, I found that the three teas I had at work were running decidedly low.  Add to that the fact that my new, wonderful Breville teapot has one important drawback: teabags.  The Zarafina device has a setting for loose or bagged tea in the infusion basket, so you can make wonderful tea with either.  The Breville tea maker does not have this setting and it really doesn’t seem to deal well with putting bagged teas in the infusion basket.  I have the same tea product in both bags and loose (usually gifts from others who don’t look to carefully at the tin), and the bagged tea is ground fine enough that I can’t tear open the bags and put the contents in the basket.  (It falls through into the water).

So I reshuffled some of my favorite teas that were in bags, and bought a bunch more.  I think I may be a little obsessed.

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Better Than I Can

For a few years now, I’ve had a tea making suite™ that I have loved (by Zarafina).  I had wanted it for ages, but could never justify the cost to myself, so when I saw it go on crazy-Amazon-sale for the first time, I jumped on it.  When I first started reading the instruction manual, I was overwhelmed with pretension.  It was packed full of tea-snobbery: proper temperature, steeping time, proud tradition of blah, blah, blah.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I love tea, but it was a little daunting.  The manual read like a sales pitch.  Even the paper the instructions were printed on was heavy, self-important stuff.

But the fact is, it is a marvelous device with great settings that makes tea better than I (as a human who doesn’t have time to boil water and stick in a thermometer to get optimum temperature) ever can.  The number of settings for type, delivery style and strength of tea ensures you can get all flavor you want without improper bitterness or risk of burning.  I more or less retired my stovetop kettle except for the rare occasion I need it for something other than tea.

It tickled the gadget lover in me too, since the infusion basket (not pictured below, strangely) floats until the water is heated properly, and the tea maker sinks it using magnetic attraction to the steel plate in the bottom.  It’s weirdly fun to watch.  The Zarafina tea maker is also quite pretty as you can see:

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I think I’m a Tea Snob

This afternoon at work, a coworker asked me to help her make it through the day.  Offered her a cup of tea (starting with a nice jasmine since she’s a practicing Mormon), which she seemed to think was a good idea, but she complained that none of my teas “smelled very good.”  She then told me that there was some sort of (cheap not-tea, damnit!) herbal cinnamon something-or-other up by her desk on the other side of building and that a cup of that sounded good.

My teas are always good, loose leaf wonderfulness and to have them rejected in favor of a god-knows-what generic grocery store tea bag annoyed me to no end.  So tell me, am I an elistist?

Update: A friend has informed me that I am not an elitist; like Herbert von Karajan, I’m a super-elitist.