Sunday, December 1, 2013

More than you ever wanted to know about tea

We had our office Thanksgiving party last week. I was doing pretty good, socially--shoes on and everything--and then I got some cheesecake in me and found myself doing the thing. All nerds know what I'm talking about, when you find yourself talking for an inappropriately long time about a topic no one has any interest in except yourself.

Kate Beaton knows.
I could feel it happening--I could see it in the slightly alarmed expression of my listeners--but I couldn't stop myself. I was just--so--interested in the topic!

It was tea. I was talking about tea. I was talking about tea because I love tea and everyone else needs to love tea as much as I do, and if they don't, it's only because they don't know how delightful it is, so I have to tell them.

You see how easy it is to fall into doing the thing.

I'm especially jazzed about tea right now because I went to the Big Island a couple of weeks ago and my sister took me to a tea garden. As far as best gifts ever received, this is now tied for the number one spot with the Christmas 1994 tea sampler from me mum (with 20 different kinds of tea).
Fuckin tea!
Let me tell you all the things I learned at the tea garden! This particular tea garden is located on the grounds of Volcano Winery, the southern-most winery in the U.S. It's about a mile above sea level, near Volcano Village in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Volcano Winery has seven acres of tea plants, which as you can see from the above picture, are basically just hedges. (Honestly, if I hadn't been told that this hedge made tea, I would have been like, Hey Sparky, what's with all the hedge?)

The tea that you drink is made from the new baby tea leaves, and the different types of tea--green, black, white--depend on the maturity of the leaves at the time of harvest. The newest leaves, which are still rolled up and not open yet, make silver needle tea. Just-opened leaves make white tea, slightly more mature leaves make green tea, and the leaves at the last stage of maturity, before they're just useless hedge, make black tea. At Volcano Winery, the black tea leaves are dried with a big fan, while the finer grades of tea are air-dried over a few days.

Tea leaves themselves don't smell like much of anything, even if you crush them between your fingers. Tea flowers, on the other hand, smell exactly like brewed tea. It is the damnedest thing.
Brewed tea. Who knew?
Each different tea grade requires different temperatures of water for brewing. Black tea needs water just at the boiling point. Green tea needs water slightly below the boiling point, otherwise you scorch the tea and it becomes bitter. I already knew about the water, because when I lived in Waikiki, I used to visit this Taiwanese tea shop in the Kings Village shopping center. Kings Village is the kitchiest, tackiest place you can imagine--it looks like Santa's Village, except it's open year round so there's no end to the suffering.
Three years I lived across the street from this.
However, tucked away in a corner of this Block 'o Camp was the Cha-No-Ma Teahouse, an oasis of good taste, simple but expensive sculptures, and orchids that were always in bloom. The only other customers I ever saw in there were old Chinese ladies in Chanel suits.

This place was magical. The experience would begin with charcoal peanuts, which were like little briquettes with a peanut inside, to cleanse the palate and settle the stomach. I'd pick a tea--usually one of the cheaper ones on the menu, because this was a nice place and the tea could get pretty fancy--and the owner would bring out a tea set and a HUGE kettle of hot water. He would brew the first pot himself, filling the tiny teapot and letting it overflow into the wooden tea tray. After a few seconds, he'd dump the tea through the strainer into the other tiny teapot. Then he'd pour the tea into the first set of cups. Those were the smell-good cups. You'd pour the tea out of those cups into the drink-cups, and then smell the residue left in the smell-good cup. Then you'd drink. And then you'd fill the tiny tea pot yourself from the kettle and start it all over again. 
Clockwise from left: charcoal peanuts, tea strainer, first teapot, second tea pot, smell-good cup, drink-cup.
Each round gets you about one full mouthful of tea. It takes about an hour and a half to finish the kettle. And if you can think of a better way to spend your afternoon, you can just shut your filthy liar mouth because there is no better way to spend your afternoon than in Cha-No-Ma.

The second or third time I went back, the owner taught me that tea should be treated as a vegetable. "You don't dry asparagus, do you?" he demanded. No, I agreed, you did not. "Americans only know about Lipton," he said. It's a travesty, I agreed, tea is so much more. We were kindred spirits, he and I.

He would have looked at my pictures of the Volcano Winery tea garden without searching furtively for another party-goer to rescue them from my clutches. Where are you going? Don't you want to see me picking some of the leaves?
I haven't even gotten to the pictures I took of me drinking the tea! I have to explain what my facial expressions signify about the taste and bouquet of the brew at that moment!

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