19 July 2017

Tea culture in Atlanta, as seen by a gongfu guy

Because my partner and I are likely moving out-of-state this fall, and in response to TeaDB's recent post on "Western Tea Culture & Tea Hermits," I thought I would take the opportunity to review what tea culture is like in Atlanta, Georgia--at least for these handful of years that we have lived here.

This picture has no relation to the content. Just teapr0n for your pleasure.


First, some context

We moved here from Southern California, where we were part of a lively group of tea drinkers who met with irregularity, called the LA Tea Affair. A couple of tea vendors were in the group, notably Tea Habitat and Bana Tea Company. The former even provided our location when she had a shop in Palos Verdes/Rolling Hills Estates (Tea Habitat's current shop is in the San Gabriel Valley, by appointment only, I believe, and well worth a visit. See my post here). We all brought and shared tea, learned from one another, shared opinions on teas and vendors and regions, and had a great time.


The state of gongfu Atlanta (kind of, not really)

On this blog, you can read some posts about my previous attempts to gather gongfu people together to drink tea in the south for the Southeast Tea Affair. The effort resulted in a some success, but only because of a few dedicated out-of-state people who were willing to drive as far as 10 hours to Atlanta to come drink tea. That kind of effort isn't sustainable long-term: People's lives become busy, or they tire of driving, or what have you. I don't blame them; I don't think I could have driven the distances often myself.

Fast-forward to today: There are four of us gongfu drinkers in the Atlanta metro area, including me and my partner. Four, at least, who have found one another on the internet and taken the next step to meet in person for tea. My partner's already in Seattle, so that leaves three. One of those three doesn't have easy access to transportation, so it's more often just two of us. We have a great time, and I'm very glad to be that much less of a hermit. Sharing tea is a joy, and I don't take my tea friends here for granted.
Again, not relevant, just delicious-looking.


Culturally, gongfu faces several challenges in Atlanta

Why so few of us teaheads here, in the United States' 9th-largest metro population? My years of living here have me believe it's the local culture; of the four of us who drink gongfu tea here, three of us moved here from California. That leaves only one Georgia native into gongfu. Of course, if you live in the area and would like to join us, feel free to comment. I'd love to see these "statistics" changed.

TeaDB mentions the lack of shops in the West, and Atlanta follows this trend. We only really have a handful of tea houses: not tea shops, per se, but places where you order (British) tea service and food. They do all sell loose leaf to take home, but they're more places to drink tea than to buy leaves. The tea house model makes tea social, but only as long as you BYOF, bring your own friends. Moreover, it's not Chinese or any other Asian tea focus, so there's no gongfu. The places you might get some hot Chinese tea are boba/bubble tea restaurants, but despite hot tea being on the menu, I've never witnessed anyone drinking it. And some boba places only have bagged tea.

Aside from a lack of even one shop that could teach one that gongfu exists, Atlanta is a sweet tea town, like the rest of the Southeast. Tea without sweetener, artificial or otherwise, is anathema to the culture. When you order tea at a restaurant, the assumption is cold and sweet, and you have to specify otherwise. Even if ordered plain, the assumption is you want to sweeten it yourself or use an artificial sweetener, so the staff will plunk down a caddy with bags of various sugar substitutes. It's more than even tea, really: many friends here tell me that they can't drink water plain because it tastes bad. Adults here drink kool-aid by the gallon, a beverage reserved only for children in my native state. Sugar is a necessary ingredient for the state's local foods. From fried chicken marinated in sweet tea to syrupy-sweet barbeque sauce, from sugar in spicy tuna roll sauce to pecan pie so sweet it hurts your teeth, sugar is inescapable. It helps define the local palate. Bitter tea is the opposite of this palate's preference.

Weather significantly affects the tea culture here, of course. Atlantans collectively sweat and pant their way through hot and humid weather 7 to 8 months of the year. Predictably, most Atlantans want to cool off with sweet tea, not heat up with hot tea. The farther south from Atlanta, the longer the hot season and the warmer the winters. In terms of comfort, it makes sense that cold tea reigns in the area.
Almost apropos, insomuch as I grew this tea in Georgia
and processed it myself. Georgia's first white tea! All 6
grams of it.
Lastly, one gongfu-inhibiting factor, which I don't think most Georgians even realize, is the state's conformist culture. Difference isn't celebrated here like it was in California, and a hobby like gongfu makes people think you strange. Where in California, it was common to meet people of all walks of life, interested in any sort of hobby, here it's uncommon.


Seattle-bound?

We have planned our move for September/early October, and our first choice is Seattle, so TeaDB will have two more teaheads to drink with, if he wants. I'll enjoy being able to visit Floating Leaves in person, and if you have any other tea shop recommendations for Seattle or thereabouts, let me know in the comments.

04 August 2016

Visiting California Part 3: The Return of Tea Habitat


Shortly after I left Southern California, Tea Habitat's physical location closed. Imen, who owns and runs the company, specializes in dancong oolong and offers more varieties of it than any vendor I've visited on this or that side of the Pacific. My partner and I, along with the LA Tea Affair folks, had spent handfuls of mornings - that turned into afternoons - tasting and discovering better dancong oolong teas at Tea Habitat. Of course, any time a physical shop closes, it should sadden us; there are too few places in the U.S. to taste high-end teas before you buy them.

Thus, I was excited to learn that Tea Habitat opened a new shop space, although it's available by appointment only. Even better, Imen was there and tasting when we wanted to drop by.

Imen hated me for taking this photo, but I think she looks good.

The new space is cozy, bright and well decorated.

As pictured, we drank many teas. Many were new shipments fresh from China that she herself hadn't tasted yet. I wish I could remember all the names and which ones impressed me most, but my focus was on catching up. She did take notes, and if they're not already on her site, they will be soon.





I wish I could remember all the names. In addition, we had a delicate green and a punchy, supposedly wild-harvested bai mudan (white peony).



I had to take a break to appreciate a few of her teaware items. This cute vintage plate tempted me, but too many plates line my shelves already.



After this, we took a trip to the Huntington Library and Gardens to see how their Chinese garden had fared. The willows and shrubs have grown in, the koi have grown fat, lotuses and water lilies dot the ponds, and new pavilions and paths have popped up.




We needed a refreshment after all the walking. Ever heard of Okinawa-style milk tea? I had not, but I'm glad my friend introduced me. It's milk tea with caramelized brown sugar as sweetener, and it's aromatic and rich. Not as fancy as the tea we'd had earlier, but a delicious alternative to a cold coffee beverage.

01 August 2016

Visiting California Part 2: Tea with LATA

Way back when, a few of us tea enthusiasts in the greater Los Angeles region met regularly to drink tea together. Most of the original crew have moved or moved on, but some of us have stayed in touch. 

During my recent trip to California, I had a chance to meet up and drink tea with some of them.


We drank a handful of teas, including some well aged liu bao sent from Su, our friend in Malaysia who has been drinking and collecting tea for many years (Su, the pic is a shallow amount of a very late infusion, so don't think we messed it up! It was good).


We also drank xiao huang yin (little yellow label), a tea now upwards of 40 years old. I thought to myself, "Bears, we are aging, too: I remember when this tea was in its early thirties!" Another measure of time passing, I updated my New to Pu'er? post, and realized how many years went by since I last tasted fresh raw pu'er productions. Pu'er and other teas I've aged now bring me nostalgic pleasure in part because they have aged with me. Remembering when I bought this or that tea in China, who I was with, where our lives have taken us thereafter: some teas have become a consumable part of my past, a medicine for remembering to remember.

Sentiments and tea philosophy aside, the visit reinvigorated my passion for tea, which I rue to admit had smoldered. Our drinking gave me fresh inspiration to write this blog again.

Thank you for reading. Expect new content at least somewhat regularly. I will be reviewing a book and maybe a website or two, and I'll update on how some of my teas have aged, including my own production.

27 July 2016

Visiting California Part 1: A New Jar


Alternate title for new post: How Not to Photograph a Jar. Lighting high gloss ceramic pieces is tricky!

Trevor Stimson/Laguna Porcelain made this jar, which I purchased from the artist's wife at their booth at the Sawdust Festival in Laguna Beach (His young daughter excitedly sold some ceramic beads she made to my sister, too). If you're ever in Orange County during their summer or winter festivals, I recommend a visit; they have a handful of ceramic artists with good work at affordable prices, as well as many other types of art and craft.

Back when I used to throw ceramics, there was a saying that blue hare's fur (Google Image search of this term here, for easy reference) was a "money glaze." Meaning, glaze something with it, and it will sell. People love blue, and they love the deep blue and soft texture of hare's fur, also known as rutile blue. Ceramicists expressed a love/hate relationship with the glaze: the guaranteed sell worked like a pair of gilded handcuffs, stifling their ability to glaze creatively. Nonetheless, a beautiful glaze, despite its ubiquity and all grumpy comments about taste and creativity aside.

The shape is ginger-jar-ish, with a wider modern lid. The conservative shape and smooth finish shows off the glazing well. The glaze has a hare's fur feel to it, but it is better classified as a tea dust glaze (probably two or more glazes that were layered). The tea dust motes appear to have left behind streaks of darker teal and blue as they melted down the face of the vessel. They tea dust settles thickly in a matte layer of golden tan, and flecks of it looking like gold stars populate the thickly globbed black background where the glaze nearly flowed off the jar. Hare's tea dust? Dusty fur?

I liked it enough that I felt it worth risking breakage while bringing it home in my carry-on luggage.

I have some 2007 shui xian I plan to store in this jar, guarded by my tea piglet.

22 July 2016

Still Drinking Tea

It's been a while. Here's a picture of some pretty Bairuixiang yancha leaves, a sample from an LA tea friend.