Friday, December 15, 2017

Pre-travel blogging: off to Russia soon

the Kremlin!  (photo credit)

It seems odd writing about travel before traveling.  I've done it before, related to an online search for sources of tea (planning to visit both Korea and Japan), as much about ways one might approach that as to the references.  Since that's been 2 1/2 years I forgot how similar this current draft is to that post; it's a bit redundant, really.

aurora forecast (credit this space weather site)

The background:  we'll visit Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Murmansk, starting next week.  Of course I don't plan to even consider tea shopping up at the edge of the Arctic circle.

As an online friend mentioned it would be helpful to have shops you want to visit "starred" in Maps before the trip, but how to go about finding those places?  Google search "tea," obviously, but beyond that there are interesting and indirect ways to look for leads.  Ill go through some options in this post. 

First I'll point out the obvious:  I'm not going to Russia mostly to check out tea.  It was my wife's idea to go there to see the aurora borealis (northern lights) and she thinks that Russian culture would be interesting.  I think so too; both should be amazing.  Ever since that unfortunate Cold War it has seemed like an interesting place.  I won't do much with a tea theme there but that didn't stop me from looking into the subject over the last few weeks. 

Google / Google Maps

Since the idea was to talk to people, and beating the bushes was part of the intent, the early round of looking into tea shops leads didn't include this.  Of course it works, and standard Google-search alternatives like the Moychay shops get mentioned that way too.  It's just not as easy to click around and tell what individual shops and products are like as it is to hear that from someone.  At best a link-listing of "best tea shops" might turn up and then you could almost stop there (just add those to Maps as stars, since things can get a bit hectic "on the ground" during vacations).

Language can be a problem, in some countries, and English search won't work very well, or Maps labeling based in English.  I'm not sure how that plays out in Russia; they don't speak a lot of English, per my understanding, but one would expect them to expect English-speaking tourists.

a shop and some starred search in Moscow

the "tea" search results from Maps in St. Petersburg; a decent start

Tea group contacts

I asked around in a FB group I'm an admin for, International Tea Talk.  This wouldn't be a natural second level to try for everyone, but since I'm into tea groups it was.  Really just asking in a couple isn't enough; using search functions makes sense to catch if someone asked the same thing in the past.  That could run a little long, to do in very many places, but then someone could also spend a day paging around leads from Google search if they really wanted to.  A chance contact turned up the Tea Magic Shop vendor, and Sergey (the owner) seems nice.  If someone on your FB friends list is a Russian who is into tea that could shorten the process, and one of two Russian tea vendors I know was really helpful.

Related to getting help online, I go back and forth over how much to credit or mention people who pass on input in these blog posts.  Since checking on their preference is problematic I usually only reference online (public) statements, or ask permission when an idea or discussion quote is very useful.

that coldest temperature is only -5 F; no problem

Trip Advisor, Expat forums

Trip Advisor is great for looking up hotels or lists of attractions, but there's a travel themed forum that can also be very helpful.  Forum participants might blame you for not using a search function if the same question tends to come up often, or for not looking at the FAQ section, but you can still just type it out anyway.  In online groups and that site I just tune out questions like "what should I see in Bangkok?," unless I feel like adding something.  The short version about Bangkok:  temples are cool here, and Thai food can be nice.

Asking in the Trip Advisor forum worked; people with varying interests in tea made good suggestions.  I tried in an Expat forum and it didn't work, really.  If wasting time at it is of interest someone could look up and ask in a dozen different FB groups and various expat forums, and eventually the right person might see a post.  Of course checking again and again on all that would be tedious, and who knows which of those would or wouldn't use alerts to help support that.

One thing became clear in that discussion, even based on only limited input:  Russians don't drink all that much Russian tea.  Most of the people I talked to weren't clear that it even exists.  I like to check out shops and preferences in local places we visit but I've been a bit spoiled for going to main producer countries (China, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia).  Not only is tea widely available in those places--not so much in Indonesia, better versions, but in the rest--it's also possible to try as local products.  If I find good Wuyi Yancha or pu'er in Russian shops that will be interesting, but I already know where to get those teas.  Still, some of the input was interesting, as this comment was, following mentioning the standard chain shops there: St.Petersburg tea (and coffee) chains:

- Море чая
- Унция
- Кантата

They all have stores in the "tourist downtown" area so you'll probably stumble across one or another. But like you've guessed and most posts here said you'll find either commercial teas or from China/Japan/etc. In Soviet times we used to have at least two famous brands of Russian tea: Три слона (Three elefants) and Бодрость (cheerfulness) but they are gone long time.

Tea shop leads, local culture background, and history in one detailed comment; very nice!


One likely problem for this scope is that a tea blogger in Russia would write in Russian.  Automatic translation works but the results can be choppy and unclear.  My favorite US tea blog, Steep Stories, focuses on looking into teas from out of the way places, and he's reviewed a number of them from Russia.  The next problem:  that's going to work well for ordering a tea produced in Russia (and I found a great online lead using that approach), but not so well for shops where someone might go.

I turned up nothing for tea blogs based out of Russia anyway, although this US based version post did discuss what a Samovar is:

Using Google Translate to convert "tea blog" into Russian and searching based on that probably would have been more productive, but then I would definitely need to read any of those identified through automatic translation.


Finding pictures of tea shops is actually a really promising approach.  People look for public exposure there, and use different tags, but this kind of approach also really takes some doing.  At some point it has to be about how pleasant the messing around is instead of how productive.


I didn't get far with all that.  There are a half-dozen tea shops starred in Maps in Moscow and that one citation covered what turned up related to St. Petersburg.  Time spent digging through groups didn't get far; I might have added a few shops to a starred list beyond Google search results.

It's funny how there's usually one shop you really should check out, based on a close match with your own interests, and it's a bit unproductive to find out about it after you finish the trip.  I found some great shop options in NYC on a visit through online search, but later group discussion turned up one that was probably better, not so far from our hotel, that I didn't know of to visit.

Since this trip is more about seeing the Kremlin and aurora borealis than tea I won't mind so much if I barely get started on the subject there.  It just wouldn't make for much of a follow-up blog post talking about "not finding any tea in Russia."

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

White chocolate masala chai Christmas blend

Originally posted as:

I've been meaning to get back to making a masala chai and a Christmas tea blend, so to clear through both I combined the themes.  This also contains a touch of bitter orange marmalade to fill in the spice range with a little fruit but the title seemed wordy adding it.

I've done Christmas tea blends before, and talked through what that's all about quite a bit.  Two years ago I did a fruit and spice blend, and last year's version went a bit further from the basics (black tea, orange citrus, and cinnamon) to include vanilla, cacao nibs, and black cherry jam, so based on chocolate covered cherries.  It was nice, just a bit removed from a typical dry tea and spice blend.

This year I didn't put the advance thought in and prep was mostly limited to what I had around.  That actually came up as both a positive and negative factor in the outcome.

Christmas nativity play; there to see that cow in the lower right

my cheerful Christmas cow


-Thai organic CTC black tea
-ginger, clove, cardamom, touch of salt and black pepper
-bitter orange marmalade
-white chocolate
-palm sugar, milk

I did have to buy the black tea for this; funny there was no CTC tea in the house.  I think my wife picked up a couple of free tea bags in a hotel stay once but I went ahead and bought some loose black tea anyway.

I used all dry spices; spice-rack versions.  If the spices are relatively fresh that's fine (not on the old side, I mean, anything in jars isn't fresh in the other sense), since spices have a pretty good life-span.  Flavor dropping off is one thing but after a couple of years they really can pick up a mustiness.  Ginger is typically easy to use fresh, since we cook with the root here, and it's even easy to find back in the US, but we seemed to be out.  I think the powdered ginger was the oldest of the spices and did contribute a slight mustiness.  Luckily the proportion of ginger was quite low in this version, something I'll get to more in the next section.

I would expect that black cherry would be nice for the fruit balance, or orange peel for citrus, but bitter orange marmalade was the closest thing on hand.  I considered squeezing in a bit of fresh pomelo juice (Asian grapefruit), since that was on hand around, but didn't expect it to work as well.

White chocolate was sort of a gamble.  I wasn't sure the texture would work, but then using real vanilla bean (in the past) does contribute a really thick, creamy texture to spice and tea blends, which is still ok.  Adding a touch of salt gives blends balance.  I'm not sure it changed much but I went with a dash of black pepper for this version, which isn't atypical for masala chai, I just don't like peppery chai.  Palm sugar isn't that different than a natural brown sugar; it was really just what was around.

Proportions, process

The blend was mostly black tea.  Clove was heaviest after that, with this version light on ginger.  There was a good bit of chocolate, nearly as much as in a Hershey bar, but not enough to make the drink into a tea flavored hot chocolate instead of a chocolate flavored tea.  I didn't measure those, which leads into an aside I've been meaning to mention, and probably have already covered, about not sticking to well-determined proportions or parameters.

It comes from an approach to cooking.  I taught myself to cook in my 20s, based on my mother's cooking (which is quite good, mainly traditional foods back in Pennyslvania), and on a partial study in making dorm food in college.  Part of my approach was to never, ever use recipes, except maybe for something like chocolate chip cookies--those are touchy.  It was about the process as much as the outcome.  Funny that just came up in talking about making tea; you can probably imagine why.  People get into the ceremonial aspects of that, or see it as some sort of Zen practice, with the Japanese tea ceremony based on that sort of thinking.  I could be more careful about using ideal parameters (I am an engineer too; I get it), but then it becomes about optimization, not the experience.  For me winging it is part of an organic process, and experience limited natural variation is too.

So back to that blend.  I mixed the ingredients and simmered for around 15 minutes.  For more whole spices I'd probably go with at least 20 minutes, but that's fine for finer processed versions.  Whenever you taste such a mix without milk it seems like you've completely ruined it, but adding the milk swings it all into a reasonable balance.  It's probably more typical to simmer along with the milk, and it's my impression that the milk does actually cook a little, changing the flavor, but this time I didn't.

Conclusion, outcome

It worked!  Often the first go at something novel really points towards how to get it right the next time instead, but this balanced well, and was nice.  The chocolate fell into a nice relation to the spicing, and the levels of all of the flavors worked out well.  Clove was strongest of the spice elements, but they all mixed so much that no one element was really pronounced over the others.  The marmalade folded in so well that it was hard to notice it even had any citrus aspect, but I think it probably supported the other flavors more than was evident.  The texture was fine, a little thick, but then ordinary masala chai tends to seem a little thick too.

It was a bit close to hot chocolate, of course, really in between a masala chai version and that.  It worked well for me, but I wouldn't want to drink either of those things too often.  It's a lot easier to review; it tastes like those ingredients.  It would match well with cold weather but it's in the mid 20s here (C; probably up to around 80 F now, cool for us in Bangkok but not cold weather).  I made enough to have two very large cups with breakfast, and judging from the amount of soaked tea and spices I was probably good and dosed with caffeine from that.

Part of the point was trying something new, and part was also about encouraging others that making tea blends is possible.  You don't just need to rely on Teavana or David's to hand something over, and really don't need to go find whole spice versions to make a costly tea blend either.

I'd think lots of things might work well for this holiday blend theme, lots of which I've seen in review posts about them:  pine needles (more on using those here and here), peppermint candy, etc.  It might be cool to try and figure out how to integrate nuts, or other things that wouldn't typically go in a tea blend, cognac, or egg nog, whatever comes to mind.  At worst a batch would be awful, so the time and ingredients would be wasted.

drying fruit for a version awhile back

Messing around with the tea input would be a natural variation.  I often use both CTC black tea and a mid-range quality orthodox black version (if I have both around), but an aged shou mei might fold into spice flavors just as well, or maybe better if you could balance the richness and subtlety well.  Smoked tea (Lapsang Souchong) has blending potential, but you know how it goes with those, finding a good one and getting the balance right would be tricky.

It starts to go a bit far but a Hunan brick tea might have interesting potential, keeping the spice a little lighter in that case so the unusual nature of that tea would have a chance to shine through.  One of those with a little cinnamon and nutmeg, dried orange peel, apple, and some dried fruit (raisin or date) might be great.  Crazy spicing like rosemary and sage might work for a different version, in the right mix.

Or just mixing black tea, cinnamon, and dried orange peel would be great, I'd think.

2016 Christmas in PA, with snow

visiting grandparents last holidays

Presenting an introduction to tea at a CultCheers event

I presented an introduction to tea at a recent CultCheers event, a pilot version of their function format.  It was really more of a small informal discussion, a very nice context, during which we tried some teas.

There isn't much more to add about the event premise.  It struck me as a cross between a meet - up function and a TED talk in the early discussion, and it worked out like that.  The idea was to have a subject expert discuss a topic, supported by a host arranging an informal meeting place (with a video explaining that here).  It's odd assuming the role of a tea expert but I have given the subject some thought.  In later forms of the events there would be some degree of expense sharing but in this pilot version it was free to participants.  I presented at a Random Thainess event last year (described here) that wasn't completely different, just with a main running theme focus (Thailand), and based on multiple short presentations, with events always in the same location. 

We tried a Yunnan black tea (a Farmerleaf sun dried Dian Hong), a 2008 shou mei cake, and a 2014 Tae Tea / Dayi 7542 sheng pu'er.  It seemed odd not including oolong but the idea was to try really novel teas, and rolled oolong is what they make in Thailand, already available in lots of places, and Wuyi Yancha or Dan Cong would be a little touchier about brewing parameters.  Those teas we did try could be prepared Western style, without close tracking of timing, except for the sheng, and that worked for demonstrating Gongfu style brewing instead at the end.

The questions and discussion were great.  The participants had varying backgrounds with tea but many raised some great points, which helped move the format off being more like a lecture, allowing for an organic form of jumping around within sub-topics.  For example,  someone asked if a short initial infusion really can decaffeinate tea.  The short version: no; the caffeine infuses at about the same rate that flavor does, with the specifics in a table in this post about caffeine in tea.

It makes it easier explaining tea background and specifics in person, related to questions and other people's prior experience. That could have went another hour.  Related to that I'll add some additional comments for points I might have expanded on a little more, after showing some event pictures here first.

the making tea part

a nice set-up

with the event host

Extending some of the discussion ideas

I won't try to explain what we discussed, but I will add a bit to some of the ideas here, about the next thing we didn't get to across a lot of the scope.

Tea storage:  we talked about how tea storage is important, how some teas are more sensitive to losing flavor (especially green tea), and why zip lock bags really aren't a good alternative.  Related to buying tea stored in large jars in a shop, I mentioned in this post about shopping for tea in NYC's Chinatown how I would gamble on whether some more durable types could hold up to that, especially rolled oolong, or even loose white tea.  Pu'er, other hei cha, and compressed white teas improve with age, so the time could help, and some air exposure should be fine.  Some black teas would fare better than others,  especially sun - dried blacks.  I don't really drink much jasmine green tea but the compressed ball shape could help those do better than loose green tea (dragon pearls, or whatever they call them).

probably never a good idea to buy this tea, but cost is low for gambling on it

one version of large-jar storage; not ideal, but maybe worth checking out

Other references:   there's a lot about tea out there, but as we discussed trying teas is the thing, not reading about them (it just helps knowing they're out there to find them). A section in a beginners guide post covers other references, and a post about direct sourcing covers some vendor contacts.

Oolong:  it's odd we didn't get to those, since to me oolongs are among the best options for people getting into better loose tea, and personal favorites.  Rolled oolongs, which are produced in Thailand, are easy to brew (or hard to screw up), generally inexpensive, and ok across a range of quality levels.  Oriental Beauty is a Taiwanese type that tastes like citrus, bergamot, or cinnamon spice, more oxidized so closer to a black tea than lighter oolongs, which also turn out well brewed in different ways.  Wuyi Yancha and Dan Cong are a little trickier to get the best out of, and I'd use Gongfu style brewing for those, but both have a really interesting flavor range (and feel and aftertaste; later on one tends to not only focus on taste). I wrote a Quora answer once about what different oolongs taste like, which is impossible to fully answer, but a couple of paragraphs does make a start on that.

Da Hong Pao dry leaves, a favorite oolong type

Cold brewing: I'd mentioned this, but maybe didn't clarify exactly how this could work for using the last of a tea in the rush.  All those teas we tried on that tasting day really weren't finished, and all of them could be put in lukewarm water, then in the refrigerator, for 8 hours to a day to make another infusion to drink later or the next day.  I would try to never leave teas even refrigerated for 2 days instead but you can.  There's not really a limit to how many times a tea can be brewed;  until the flavor is gone or is no longer pleasant.  I think only the sheng pu'er isn't well suited for cold brewing, but that's just a matter of preference.

Brewing temperature:  those teas we did try were selected to brew well at boiling point temperatures.  This subject gets complicated, because there is only universal agreement that green teas should be brewed at cooler than boiling point temperatures, and which ones at which temperature is contested for those too.  I just wrote a post summarizing a group discussion over whether oolong should be brewed at boiling point or not.  The short version:  brewing tables say no, to use 85-90 C water, but half of the discussion participants said yes, to use boiling point water.  It's probably as well to not go into why there is a difference of opinion; it's in that post.  It could work to experiment, and see which parameters you like, which might vary over time, or could even vary related to using different versions of the same teas.

Online tea group culture:  we definitely didn't into get to this subject.  I only mention it here as a warning that it's not that uncommon to have bad experiences in researching and discussing tea online.  An online friend just mentioned one version of that:  she started a new-to-tea theme blog a few years ago, and people in one of the main tea forums said that her opinion and experience sharing meant nothing because she was new to the subject.  I very much disagree.  After experiencing a learning curve background knowledge increases, and preferences tend to change, but the experiences of people new to tea are just as valid as those with depth of knowledge and experience. 

I helped co-found a Facebook tea group (this one, with an international theme) and we don't even need to show people the door for expressing that type of disdain for others because the group culture just isn't like that.  It works to remember that in general those people are only trying to share their own hard-won knowledge, to try and read comments as suggestions, but at some point leaving toxic discussion environments is the only real alternative.

my blog mascot as a Christmas nativity play cow; different


The event was a great experience!  I've done a bit with sharing tea experiences and ideas in real life in the past but I'll have to stay open to different forms of it in the future.