Wednesday, May 28, 2008

More Than Broken Teaware

Oops! Looks like I completely killed Cap & Kettle with my reckless dabbling. Don't worry though. It'll be back, in a better, grander form. Keep an eye out.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The House of Commons - An Uncommon Place

I usually take my tea at home within the reach of my Macbook, reading book and teaware. But its always nice to get out and socialize, preferably over a hot cup of the good stuff. Sadly the American tea house is so rare as to be a phenomenon, on par with the Aurora Borealis and coastal green flash. I mean, it's simply rare. Since I'm migrating to a new city this fall, I thought about visiting one of these mysterious backrooms of tea leaf and levity here in Denver, even if it took some searching. I consulted my maps and charts, one of which purpotedly had a trail to one of these establishments, marked far out into uncharted lands. "Here There Be Dragons and Maybe Some Tea, Arrr." Sure enough, after a long Odyssian journey of trials and travesties I found the place, as taken and joyful at its discovery as Cortez must have been when he first sighted South American gold mines.

The House of Commons, an usually Anglo-Saxon name for a tea house so squarely planted in the United States, flaunts its British credentials from the moment one steps through the door. In fact, the Old World feel begins well before you park. A quick look down the ritzy street on which the House sits will bring to view a wine bar, a spice shop and a coffee shop. All the commodities for which good and healthy empires were willing to wage war. Now at your convenience! So it was actually only after a Cafe Mocha and pocketful of Tellicherry peppers later that I headed into the tea shop. There a clean and bright tea room (quite the contrast from the post-apocalyptic feel of nearby "Paris on the Platte") welcomes visitors with racks of scones and tea menus for perusing.

Though my thirst demanded (or rather, commanded) an Oolong, I opted for the unorthodox combination of a green tea and a scone, complete with jam and Devonshire cream; the kind that could arrest the cardiovascular system as well as it arrests the eyes. The "Green Tea" I was told, was only labeled as "Green Tea from Indonesia", though it looked a great deal like a Pouchong. I suppose I'll never know what it really was, but I found it quite good and expertly brewed. Other sessions sampled the Yunnan black tea and Tin-Kuan-Yin, both also very well prepared. I'd say they were more expertly devised than anything I can hack together at home.

Each pot of tea comes in one of two sizes - "reasonable" and "deluvian". I kept making the mistake of ordering the larger of the two, and each time driving home with the jittery reflexes of an F-16 pilot. When served you recieve a saucer, tea cup, spoon (for defiling your tea with milk and sugar, should you choose that most wicked of paths) a filter and a filter cuppy thingy for keeping the table dry. Everything one would need, that is, either to commit to a clean and proper tea session or, as in my case, look silly splashing tea about with tools far beyond my capabilities. By the time I had finished my 11 cups of tea the table looked more like a water park then a serving area. Furtively I wade away from my table and deposit extra money in the tip jar, hoping desperately the tea persons will either forgive my watery trespasses or forget who was sitting at the now swampy corner. Still, I enjoy it and find the experience to be a nice departure from the down n' dirty tea drinking I do at home.

Above all, the benefit of a tea house, and where the House of Commons really shines, is in the friendliness and expertise of the staff. These are, in essence, professionals who have not only dedicated their time to tea, but also to the proper service of said tea. For example, the Chinese manufacturer or American distributor really doesn't care that it ships out, say, Sencha tea. The responsebility of matching the right tea with the right customer falls squarely into the tea person's lap. The owner, a Ms. Avery, described by a co-worker as a "Very nice tea shop lady" is indeed a genuine product of the British Isles, complete with accent. While the novelty of her origin does indeed make her charming, as all Americans percieve all English to be, she has an uncanny knack for genuinely caring about what you drink and why you drink it. Most importantly, she advises and consults.

There is another tea store, which shall remain unnamed, which I found had an excellent tea sampling system, far beyond anything else I've found in Colorado, but the owner was cold and dismissive. Not so at the House of Commons, whose guiding force and manager is amiable and compassionate about her work. Also, as a young tea drinking male I can't help but be stricken by the young woman working as the assistant, a self-styled Jack-of-all-Trades and orthodox about her tea in amidst a generation addicted to L-chiral sugars and cream. Definitely a plus. But back to the subject of the tea house, I find that the staff here are very outgoing and willing to strike up a conversation so long as the House isn't packed, at which point they'll at least take the time to figure out which tea you should be drinking that day.

If you're in the downtown area and have any kind of inkling for tea, or an affinity for English culture and the cultured, I highly suggest a stop at the House of Commons. Located off I-25, past the Aquarium.

Also, my apologies, but the tea was just so good I forgot to take any photographs of the interior. That picture of the table will have to suffice.

2401 Fifteenth St.
Downtown Denver

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Review: Adagio's Oolong #40

Tea marketing experts go to great lengths to describe the distinctive flavors of their tea. I especially like watching the inelegant handling of green tea. You can practically see the author squirming as they candidly pen words like "grassy", "fresh" or "a bit lawny" - diction oh so appealing to American palates. But nobody ever taackles the Gordian dilemma of Oolong tea. Nobody attempts to describe what an Oolong really tastes like. Lectures and essays about its production are common through out the tea interwebs and tea books. But no flavor profiles. Part of the problem is the broad definition of "Oolong" or "Wulong" which covers so many different styles and methods that it's about as specific as saying "Tea tastes like tea." You could argue that there are flavors common to all Oolongs, but I prefer not to make assumptions, even for the sake of tea newbs. See, I used to think all Oolongs were related in taste by a mellow graham cracker like flavor, but Adagio's Oolong #40 quickly dispelled that erroneous take. Think tropical flavors and daring cuisine. Think of sultry breezes and ocean spray. This Oolong is far from the misty, rocky crags on Formosa guide books - it is a vacation from Oolongs, so to speak, and evidence of why nobody will even try to describe what an Oolong tastes like.

"Oolong tea from Taiwan. Formosa, meaning 'beautiful' was what the Portuguese explorers called this island. The oolong tea grown here continues to be called as such. The intense pungency and exquisite bouquet of Formosa Oolong tea is regarded to be the finest in the world. However, only the finest of Formosa teas warrant the label of 'fancy' grade. This is such tea. Our 'Oolong Symphony no. 40' has dark, silver-tipped leaves and produces a mesmerizing cup of delicate peachy notes and warm, soothing flavor. Well deserving its nickname as the true champagne of teas."


Adagio spares no flattering words for this, their second highest rated Oolong, bested only by their premium Jasmine Oolong. I'm prone to agree. Though I can't justify why this would be fancy or fancier than other Oolongs, I can attest to its delicious deviance and distinguished style. It is a tea to remember.

Leaf & Liquor: At first glance Oolong #40 is not a single type, color and shape, but a colorful blend of greens and browns. Some leaves are more curled than others, and the breadth of colors covers light copper patina to moss green to timber brown. A healthy steep makes a healthy auburn color (one color), with a rich hue glowing like a large topaz gem. It also exhibits a good clarity, and somewhere in its dark and pensive depths the Oolong #40 takes on a color borrowed from a black tea. Most Oolongs I've had opted for a lighter shade of straw, but the Oolong #40 dispenses with the pale particulars and buckles down with a deeper tan.

Raw & Steeped Aroma: All that starry eyed tropical nonsense in the opening of this review? That comes into play here in the aroma. I dipped my nose for a quick whiff, expecting more of the same (but good!) Oolong olfactory opulence to hit my nose. I was completely off guard, then, when I caught the most curious smell. It was something familiar, but so far removed from the world of tea that I had to sit back and re-open my aroma palatte to find out what it was. Of course! Sweet coconut milk! The Oolong #40 conjured vivid memories of coconut shrimp plates of the past, but above all a smooth, sweet and silky scent of coconut milk, or maybe even sugared shredded coconut. Samoa cookies? Whatever your sugary coconut dish of choice, this smells a lot like it. I also catch a supplementary aroma of mochi, or those not in the know, flattened, pounded, glutinous rice, widely known as a common Japanese festival food and a hazard to dry throated elder persons. It's delicately and slightly sweet, and perfect for the timid palate. The coconut is neither overpowering nor weak, casting the perfect balance of intensity with a straightforward, appealing smell. I've never experienced anything quite like Oolong #40's aroma, which quickly puts it on a list of teas to have again.


Flavor & Palate: But like so many good teas, the hype of the aroma doesn't last through the tongue test. That coconut cream milkiness makes a brief return in the palate and the taste, with the slightest vestigial nub of the coconut flavor, but the tea is otherwise stripped of its fanciful fragrance. While the taste might be bowlderized of it's better flavor, but the palate is not so destitute. Still heavy and slow, the tea's body sits dutifully on the tongue. Unexcitable, unremarkable, it waits and ponders, breathing a heavy sigh. It's slow and ponderous crawl extends to the drinker, too, who can't help but slip into a semi-meditative state. A tranquilizer Oolong #40 is not, but it is a fantastic relaxant. As I write in my notes "Light, almost imperceptible, but with a nice weighty palate and the ability to focus the unfocused mind." Even bereft of flavor it is still gladly taken with book, movie or writing session.

As usual, my review concludes with a lesson of morality (Wheel of Morality, Turn Turn Turn, Tell Us The Lesson That We Must Learn) but today's is dead simple. That an Oolong is only a name, and a very unfair one. Maybe this is another example of Edward Said's Orientalism - Westerners slapping labels on foreign phenomenon, simplifying them, and keeping them at arm's length. We lack the recognizable vocabulary to differentiate between Oolongs. As (hack) writers we struggle to put a tea's flavorful depth into words that English may not be prepared for. We always urge someone to just try it, just take a sip, because whatever we say will not suffice. This is all telling, then, why Oolong will forever remain a mystery on tea house menus. "Oolong Tea: C'mon, Just Try It." And that certainly applies to Adagio's Oolong #40; a tea set apart from its so-called Oolong siblings in aroma and even a little in flavor.

Thursday, May 8, 2008


Apparently even a good thing like tea can be taken too far.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Review: Adagio's Ooooh-Darjeeling

At the height of Adagio's clever but confusing naming scheme is the Ooooh-Darjeeling. If you're not sure what either an Oolong or a Darjeeling tea is, you'll have no problems. If you don't know what either an Oolong or a Darjeeling is, you'll find the name delightfully onomonopoetic and exotic. If you DO know what both an Oolong and a Darjeeling are, you'll be very confused.

Chances are your natural affinity for tea and insatiable thirst for a good cup of the stuff has also turned into an insatiable thirst for tea knowledge. Maybe this takes you to a library, maybe to the top of a Chinese mountain. There are many places to find tea wisdom. And whether you're consulting a book or a bearded mystic, you'll eventually find that teas are classified by its primary qualities qualities, sub-categorized green, black, oolong and white teas. Mostly. Sometimes. However loose this definitions may be, it is still a good start.

The student of tea will learn that Darjeeling is a black tea, on account of being very dark and typically astringent. And that Oolong teas, variegated, can still have some flavors in common. So, uh, Oooooh-Darjeeling sounds a lot like an Oolong and a lot like a Darjeeling. Or is it just an extremely good Darjeeling that makes you want to say, "Ooooooooh". So which is it? A Frankensteinian hybrid or an awe-inspiring Darjeeling? I turn to the leading authorities on Ooooooh-Darjeeling to find out.


"A rare first flush oolong tea from the Darjeeling region of India. While it is fairly uncommon for an Indian garden to produce anything other than black tea, the growers at the Gopaldhara estate have produced this exquisite exception. Steeped in a quality that rivals its Taiwanese and Chinese competitors, our Ooooh Darjeeling is sure to produce both 'ooohs' and 'aaahs.'"

And the clouds parted. There was clarity in communication, and it was good. Oooooooh-Darjeeling isn't a Darjeeling, it merely comes from the same region that happens to be famous for its own exclusive sub-style of black tea which has nothing to do with this Oolong except they're grown in the same general place. Good.

Leaf & Liquor: The Ooooooooh-Darjeeling's rawest form is a autumnal medley of leaves, scattered and erratic, with the same picturesque charm of late September foliage, though darker. If the leaf is a twilight shaded fall foliage, the liquor is high noon in Spring. Light, clear, peach colored with a raw, burning orange rind color, the Oooooooooh-Darjeeling is clarifying, shining tea. It is dark for an Oolong, sure, but it isn't so light as to be skeletal and pale; just dark enough to really show off the tea's curious brightness.

Raw & Steeped Aroma: It took me a lot of sampling, sniffing and head scratching, but at last I conjured up exactly what this tea smelled like: Chicken Picatta. If you dig buttery, citrusy Italian food, you'll love the Ooooooooooh-Darjeeling's aroma. Seriously. It smells like chicken soaked in a butter and lemon sauce with capers, exactly and precisely. And really, it's a bit startling. I honestly don't expect gourmet, continental cooking in my tea, but once I had formally acquainted myself with the possibility it was a stunning smell. It also encouraged my clamoring hunger with the herbal side notes of parsley and even a skoshe of oregano. Also, if you've read about old methods of drinking tea (with salt) Adagio's Ooooooooooooh-Darjeeling with its curiously strong scent of salty capers gives you an idea what that ancient tea might have been like. Alternately, you could just dump some kosher salt in your tea, but this is a bit more genuine.


Flavor & Palate: The excessive foray into a culinary countenace found in the aroma is absent in the taste, where a far sublter, gentler Oolong greets the tongue. The body is of medium-weight, present more in its palate than in flavor. As with many lighter teas, the beginning of the sip is almost flavorless, but a gentle, slightly toasty Oolong flavor creeps up from seemingly nothing. This, however, remains dwarfed by the inestimably strange aromatic qualities. I guess it is a rather bland taste, foiled by the tea's own outrageous salute to fine Italian cooking, which is sad in a way, but speaks highly of, at least, the tantalizingly unique aroma.

Teas like this make me think how a tea can be good independently of a poor taste. And that is because tea can often be more than just a drink. Tea is a sensation, and if one quality of the tea is intoxicating it is enough to be good without other parts of the tea also being intoxicating, then it is enough to be, simply, a good tea. So go ahead and breath in the Euro-gustatory vapors of Adagio's Oooooooooooh-Darjeeling, for even if the flavor is less than remarkable you can get a remarkable olfactory sensation and a better breadth of understanding for the mystique and wiles of tea.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Review: Stash's Raspberry Tea

I really love tea sampler packs. I, the beleaguered consumer suffering under the yoke of rising food prices, don't need to commit myself to a one-flavor box of potentially undrinkable teas. When I invest in a tea sampler, my dwindling tea budget is spared an unnecessary hit and I get the benefit of another six or eight reviews at rock bottom prices. Everybody wins. Unless the whole box and every variety sucks. A bit of beer snobbery for a moment, but a sampler 6 pack from Sam Adams is still going to taste like a box of flavorless macro brew, whether there is one flavor, six or fourteen. It's all made with low quality, high volume in mind. Picking the Stash sampler pack from the shelf, then, was a defense mechanism as much as it was an act of curiosity. It is a guard against regrettable tea expenditures, but still exposes me to the very real possibility that all the teas therein are bad.

I am happy to report that at least one or two of these teas do not fall in with the rest of the sampler pack's miserable crowd. Behold, the diamond in the rough - Stash's Wild Raspberry Tea! A stolid commitment to sugar and spice with every sip, using the Raspberry as a cheap puppet in the name of natural goodness. Let’s get into the details.


A fair 4 minute steep produces a deep rose and purple colored brew. With all these tisanes turning out so murky I suspect I’m using too much tea, too much time or too little water, but according to the manufacturer’s instructions everything where it needs to be. So, I will accept that my tea looks like a shade of haunted pomegranate juice and be done with it.

The aroma is predictably sweet, but less predictably floral. And like the Stash’s blueberry tea has a janitorial edge. The fragrance is closely related to cheap bath soaps and the invasive cloud of scents from upscale mall candle stores; altogether unpleasant but tolerable. It’s the kind of smell one associates with open houses, unused guest bathrooms and surplus economy spending. Why stop buying at the necessities? Pick up a few charming ocean spray and citrus bath balls too and throw fiscal management to the wind. Yes, these are the memories evoked by Stash’s Wild Raspberry tea. A shame, too, since actual raspberries don’t seem to factor in. Perhaps, maybe, with the sensitivity million dollar German made scientific instruments, you can pick up the faintest peep of raspberry flavor. But it’s too small to really notice without disciplined focus. Does Stash deserve disciplined focus? No, so don't go straining any cranial veins in a quest to discover a deeper Raspberry flavor that isn't there.

Otherwise there is a tinny sweetness to it, some artificial raspberry syrup a la snow cone and an edible soapiness. If your average consumer was told that this wasn't so much a raspberry tisane as it was a brand new and curiously flavored sweet drink it would be far more accurate. I don't consider this tea. Maybe a sugar shot, maybe an "elixir" but not a tea. Like the Stash Blueberry tea this is very appropriate for the evening hours where an appreciatively delicious cup of Pouchong will come with late night insomnia and a following day of miserable work. If a hot beverage is needed to couple with a good read then maybe this is the tea to fill the order. The flip side to the sampler pack is, once you've found the tea you kinda like, there's no more of it left.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Review: Stash's Blueberry Tea

If there is anything a bagged tea can do well, it is blueberry tisane. I don't mean that fancy loose leaf merchants can't have a high quality blueberry tea too, only that in a market place where tea bags are almost unanimously bad and insipid, blueberry teas come off rather well. It's a petty victory, like finding an extra mini-muffin in your boxed lunch, but sweet all the same. I first came across this startling discovery with Celestial Seasonings' Blueberry tea, one of only a few from them that recieved better than a wince and a grimace. I had inflated hopes that Stash's, too, would be comparably good. To think: a cheap, affordable bagged tea, caffeine free to fill those open night slots, and with flavor too! Despite my hostility to Stash, I am impressed.


Beware! The tea is concentrated, and if lifted out of the pouch with haste will pierce your nostrils, dagger like; bloodied. It's sour and strong like drink mix powder and should be immersed in water as soon as possible. After that the screeching tartness subdues into a mellow yet intensely sweet blueberry flavor. It smells like moderately expensive hotel a la fruity carpet cleaner. I don't find this inappropriate as much as its strange. We've all smelled smells like markers, gasoline, benzaldehyde (yum) which we can't really digest but deep down inside we know we'd like to, and in the case of Stash's blueberry tea you get the benefit of a deep syrupy cleaning agent in a cup without the associated guilt or poisoning. Part of this strange Pinesol connection has to do with the tea's cheap lemony scent - handy with Mr. Clean, off-putting in a tisane. I also think a note of macadamia nut comes into play with a neutral richness that anybody who's nourished themselves on these pale Hawaiian nuggets of calories would recognize.

With a 4 minute and 30 second brew time this tea produces a hefty dose of flavor. Witness the abysmal purple color in the mug, the sucker punch of an aroma, and the overall semblance of grape juice concentrate. This stuff is thick and flavorful and, in some situations, too much. The flavor mimics a blueberry snow cone syrup, sweet and intense, but not too cloying. Only slightly cloying. Seriously, in a tisane, that's pretty darn good. I also adore the grape pez flavor. At some point this is no longer tea - more of a sweet herbal potion. You can't really talk yourself into believing it's any kind of healthy once you realize you're sipping on moistened cotton candy.

Given the circumstances, the expense, the general quality and the emprical standard for bagged teas I am, still, very pleased with this tea. I have since learned that turning to Stash, Celestial Seasonings et. al. for standard greens, Oolongs and black teas is a trial in frustration. No matter how much I try to find the market impossible combination of cheap, good quality tea bag tea, I'll never find it. This much is obvious, but like a gambler whittling away his nickels at a po-dunk back alley casino filled with cigarette smoke, I'm hoping that somewhere in this milieu of misery might be a statistically impossible pot of gold. So far, no, but Stash's Blueberry tea is like a comped beer. In the money scheme it's near worthless, and compared to my sought for fortune, it is also worthless, but in a time of drought it's impact is much more than an equivalent bag of loose change.