Blending all the green teas in the world together doesn't make a great green tea. As the old hippie woman working the International Tea Sipper’s Society booth gave me a bag of the Sip for Peace movement’s official tea, she insisted, “Don’t just drink it! Be sure to look at all the leaves first. It’s all green tea, but appreciate how different the color of each leaf is.” The blend was made from 31 different green teas harvested from all over the world: Kenya, China, Columbia, United States, Turkey, Vietnam, Australia, etc. But what was intended to promote a harmonious one-world culture tasted like an unintentionally scathing attack on globalization. It was bland and root-less. Fortunately, there were other options.
Drinking an excellent tea can be “the equivalent of seeing the Grand Canyon happening in your mouth.” At least that's what tea expert James Norwood Pratt told me when I bought a copy of his book, The Ultimate Tea Lover's Treasury. “You could only have a festival like this in America,” he also said. “All the other countries have their own tea culture. China has their thing, Russia has samovars. It’s only in America where you can get everything like this.” Pratt, who is one of the biggest names in American tea, was blending cultures together much more stylishly in his Western light blue suit paired with white Chinese tangzhuang (one of those shirts that uses knots instead of buttons). In addition to tea, he's also a wine expert who said he’ll drink anything “as long as it’s wet and goes down the right way.”
If you're giving a talk, don't tell the audience you're almost blind. Before Pratt's lecture on the similarities between wine and tea (the biggest being that both are luxuries produced more for pleasure than survival), the 77-year-old made the mistake of announcing his almost-blindness to the audience, which seemed to be taken as an open invitation for many people to leave, or leave early. But the lecture was fascinating (even if the title of his powerpoint read "Los Angeles Tea Festival").
Tea is a better mixer for cocktails than soda or fruit juice. Cocktails were originally popularized during the prohibition era as a way to cover up defects in illegal alcohol that was made in used radiators and septic tanks. Sweet juices fight the flavor of alcohol, whereas the right tea complements it. Polish tea sommelier and workshop host Agnieszka Rapacz mixed a smoky bourbon with a smoky Lapsang Souchang tea, and the resulting concoction tasted like a beach bonfire. According to Rapacz, tea cocktails started catching on just this year, particularly in Chicago bars. Many of the workshop attendees were in the restaurant industry and were already discussing ways to serve tea cocktails.
There are so many more flavors of tea than you may realize. Even teas produced in the same region from the same variety of tea plant can have very different flavors. A surprising amount of teas from Taiwan taste like butter, and not just one kind of butter; some are buttery like popcorn, and others are buttery like buttered clams. A Taiwanese tea expert assured me there are so many shades of butter flavor that it would take years for an American to be able to distinguish between them. Even the way a tea is heated to prevent oxidation can completely change its flavor and smell. Tea leaves treated by steaming have a floral smell (like walking through the garden section of a Fred Meyer), whereas pan-roasted Chinese green teas have a rich smokey aroma (think of bowling alleys before the smoking ban).
The Pacific Northwest tea scene is now almost entirely based out of Oregon. The few Puget Sound shops present were mostly from the Issaquah, Bellevue, and Burien areas. Though it was a Seattle tea festival, virtually none of the new innovations or flavor profiles were coming from companies within the city. MarketSpice was in the house with their 1960s Christmas stocking Cinnamon-Orange blend, but when I asked, “What have you been doing with tea recently?” the rep working the booth replied, “Nothing.”
The only new Seattle tea business that really caught my attention was Necessitea. When I asked which one of their teas I should try, a customer behind me replied, "All of them." The big standout was the Earl Grey/vanilla blend. With no added sweetener, it still packed a rich vanilla taste. I'd like to mix it with Bitaco's cacao tea to start my morning with the breakfast equivalent of vanilla-chocolate swirl of soft serve ice cream. Although it's a Seattle company, Necessitea is available online only; there is no store in town where you can walk in and buy it.
When it comes to festivals, you've gotta have a gimmick. Towards the end of weekend, I had tried so many different kinds of tea that I'd become judgmental towards any booth that did not have some kind of gimmick (a new flavor, an interesting place where the tea was grown, etc.). Japanese-American tea grower Taka Ino addressed this problem in the last lecture I attended, encouraging us all to drink blander teas. "More is not better," he declared. Historically, Japanese tea-growers themselves would drink bancha, the lowest quality of tea in their entire crop. This was partially because they wanted to save their best tea for the market, but also because drinking an inferior tea forced them to find beauty in it. It was good life advice, and I could not possibly find a better tea to practice with than the 31-leaf blend from the "Sip for Peace" movement.