When I left for the Philippines I knew it wasn’t a big tea-drinking country. It wasn’t even a small tea-drinking country. Whenever I asked for tea at restaurants the most common response was the splat of a Lipton’s Hot or Iced teabag in my cup and a sad look from the waiter. Expressions of, “Poor girl, asking for tea. She must not know we have coffee,” Or “Oh, she must be sick,” appeared on their faces.
The truth is, the best teas to drink in the archipelago are not made of camellia sinensis. They’re herbal infusions, often with a base of ginger, turmeric or lemongrass.
Happy Tuesday! I’d like to welcome you to the second day of the week by introducing you to a cool company I found for literature and tea lovers while scanning the Internet. I reached out to their CEO and Creative Director Christina who was obliging enough to send me a box to test and also offer a box for a reader giveaway.
Muse Monthly is a subscription service box that sends a hand-picked pairing of tea and book to your door every month.
The light and fruity, caffeine-free drink reminds me of driving around Cuba in the heat and pulling up at a roadside shack for a piña colada. Except in reverse. Here it’s freezing outside and the beverage is hot. Still, it’s a nice reminder of the tropics during the winter months.
On the package Amitea recommends trying it brewed double strength with a shot of rum. That’s an idea I can get behind. And also reminds me of Cuba.
I haven’t had a chance to read The High Mountains of Portugal just yet, but a few days ago the New York Times released their take on it. Martel is known for his 2001 book Life of Pi that won the Man Booker Prize.
Muse Monthly is based out of New York City, so I was excited that Martel, who is Canadian, featured in this month’s box. Inside the box Muse Monthly did a great job of presentation: the tea and book were each wrapped separately in black tissue paper and presentation did not not disappoint. This would make a great gift for someone (like me).
So how much do these boxes cost? Well, from what I can tell they’re priced very reasonably. For example, a one-month subscription will cost you $21 USD. The list price for Martel’s book is $27 USD. Plus, you also get the tea. You can read in my interview with Blok below how they work with publishers.
To look at it from a Canadian perspective, right now The High Mountains of Portugal is listed at $32 CAD. You can find it discounted right now at Chapters for $20 CAD. Right now with the low Canadian dollar the $21 USD cost of the box equals about $29 CAD. So the pricing is still a pretty good deal considering you’re also getting the tea and the whole artisan experience.
Interview with CEO and Creative Director Christina Blok
What made you want to start Muse Monthly?
Muse Monthly really stemmed out of the idea of comfort and relaxation – after a long day at a stressful job, all I wanted was to curl up with my book and the most gigantic cup of tea possible. I knew I wasn’t the only one, so Muse Monthly was born!
You work with some big name publishers (Tin House Books, Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Bloomsbury)! How did you establish those connections?
It was really much easier than expected. I started out researching books that were coming out for the rest of the year – book that were getting some buzz already, or just ones that looked really different from the usual thing you’d find at Barnes & Noble. And from there I just sent emails to publishing companies explaining the concept and asking if they’d be willing to work with me. I’ve been fortunate enough to form some really great relationships since then.
Christina Blok, CEO and Creative Director of Muse Monthly. Photo provided by Muse Monthly.
You support female, LGBTQA, trans and POC writers, as well as writers from around the world. What goes into choosing the book of the month?
The first thing I look for is strong writing. That is always the most important thing. I look for stories that are exciting and different, not what everyone else is going to be reading. I think it’s really important to offer books that are challenging and might open readers up to a different worldview. I try to support debut writers as well.
What about the tea?
The tea is paired with the book by what I call “atmosphere” – they’re meant to create an experience. For example, The December Collection included a story called The Blue Between Sky & Water by Susan Abulhawa, which is a story about a Palestinian family. We paired that with Green Tea and Mint from Teapigs, because mint tea is the traditional way to drink tea in Palestine. The hope is that the reader will be transported!
Books are awesome because they expand your mind and expose you to new thoughts and feelings! Books make you smarter, and being smart is badass.
Giveaway – One Free Month of Muse Monthly’s March Collection!
We’re so lucky! Christina has agreed to give one reader the March box for free! Just enter below by February 21 to be entered to win. For March they’re teaming up with author V.E. Schwab who’s upcoming novel A Gathering of Shadows will be released on February 23.
A Gathering of Shadows is the second book in her Shades of Magic series. The first book, A Darker Shade of Magic, has just been acquired by Gerard Butler’s production company, G-Base, for tv series production.
There are a few ways to enter. Each one you do puts your name in the draw! Do one or all four for your best chance of winning.
Enter to win the March Collection from Muse Monthly featuring author V.E. Schwab:
Kakuzo Okakura’s classic 1906 long essay about the east, west, tea and everything in between is less about tea itself and more about the history and philosophy of the east, west and cultural differences as explored through the lens of tea.
His essay links the role of tea, or teaism, in Japanese aesthetic life. It was written by Okakura in English to be read by a western audience. He learned english as a boy and was known throughout his life for writing and explanation Japanese culture to early 20th C westerners. You can feel the cultural tension in his writing.
“Those who cannot feel the littleness of grea things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others. The average Westerner, in his sleek complacency, will se in the tea-ceremony but another instance of the thousand and one oddities which constitute the quaintness and childishness of the East to him. He was wont to regard Japan as barbarous while she indulged in the gentle arts of peace: he calls her civilised since she began to commit wholesale slaughter on Manchurian battlefields.”
Kakuzo Okakura, The Book of Tea, p.10-11
Sometimes his writing is pretty tongue-in-cheek. This is a guy who was known for his eccentric habits. His prolific writing and visibility in the pop culture of the time gave him a high statue in Japan. This stature was marred by the fact that he had an affair with his patron’s wife.
His patron was a man nammed Ruichi Kuki and the woman was named Hatsu. She was a former geisha whom Kuki asked Okakura to accompany from the US back to Japan when she was sickly. When the affair became public, Okakura had to resign from his position as Principal of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts. Just some background for you.
Back to tea. Okakura gives a nice historical account of the bringing of tea to Japan for cultivation (near Kyoto) as well as a good nod to Sen no Rikyū who almost 500 years before had brought the way of tea to Japan, and made it a cultural necessity. His poetic description of Rikyū’s final tea ceremony and death and breathtaking. It sent chills down my back.
Okakura speaks at length about the art of tea and the ideals of tea masters. How to appreciate tea. How they select good tea. How the cultivation of a good tea practice becomes really a microcosm to examine the art of living.
I loved reading Okakaura’s explanations of how we fail to appreciate what is in front of us. He talks about people who refuse to live in the present because of nostalgia. This and other societal habits he addresses make me smile in a way because it reminds me that people have been dealing with the same shit since the 1900s. How many Facebook memes do you see today that say something akin to, “Live in the now.” That’s what Okakura was saying. A hundred years ago.
This is why reading is so important. The cure for whatever you’re dealing with now is out there now, written by some philosopher, ages ago. We’ve been fighting the same age-old battles since the dawn of humanity. We only fool ourselves into thinking they’re new.
I would recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in the history of tea, the art of tea or the history of Japan. It was entertaining and educating. The essay itself is broken up into several chapters. You could read them out of order and still take away the same message. They do relate to each other but don’t require chronological progression to be understood. Sometimes he goes on rants, albeit, very nicely-phrased ones.
Occasionally while reading I pretended I was scrolling through the Tumblr of a well-read 1900s philosophy student obsessed with tea. I think that’s the best way to describe it.
Happy Hot Tea Month! In the speculiar (spectacular and peculiar) vein of niche holidays, I’ve discovered that January is hot tea month in Canada and the U.S. (maybe other places as well – the niche holiday Google queries were unclear).
According to legend, Emperor Shen Nong first discovered tea in China in 2,737 B.C. It’s said he was traveling when some leaves from a nearby bush blew into water he was boiling. When he drank the liquor, he was infused with energy. Thus, tea became a thing.
That bush was the camellia sinensis plant. In Mandarin the camellia sinensis plant is called cháhuā (茶花) which literally means tea flower.
All tea comes from one of the two varietals the camellia sinensis plant. It’s only the difference in processing that creates the six different types of tea.
This tea is really easy to spot because of its unique white hairs. White tea is covered in a fine fuzz. The leaves are plucked before they can open and as a result the tea flavours are milder with a sometimes light sweetness. You won’t find any vegetal or chlorophyll tastes here. You see white tea often given a lot of artifical flavour (ex: white blueberry), but try a Bai Mu Dan (white peony), Bai Hao Yin Zhen (white hair silver needle) or Shou Mei (longevity eyebrow) for some hallmark pure white tea.
How to brew: 70˚-80˚C water, steep anywhere from 2-5 minutes.
Very rare, this tea I’ve only had once. Chances are you won’t find it on the grocery aisle shelves. These teas are created in a process similar to green tea, except during the creation process the wet leaves are left to dry for longer and steamed under a damp cloth. Because of that they turn yellow and lose a lot of the grassy flavours that green teas have. Jun Shan Yin Zhen (silver needle yellow tea) is a famous Chinese yellow tea. China is also the only country that makes yellow tea.
How to brew: 80˚-85˚C water, quick 1-2 minute steep.
One of my favourites! Green tea is unoxidized tea. The leaves are picked and then either roasted in a pan or steam-heated to stop oxidization. Pan-firing is more common in Chinese practice and steaming is more common in Japanese. That’s why Chinese green teas like Dragonwell or Gunpowder have more of a smokey, nutty, toasty finish as opposed to Japanese greens like Sencha or Gyokuro. Steamed Japanese greens have more of a chlorophyll flavour that can sometimes almost taste like seaweed.
Matcha is also considered a green tea. It’s made of ground tencha. Tencha is actually made using the same process as Japanese gyokuro (jade dew) green tea, except instead of being rolled before drying, the leaves are laid out flat to dry. They then become crumbly, are de-veined and ground into bright green matcha powder.
How to brew: 80˚–85˚C water and don’t steep too long; 2 minutes will do. Here’s how to brew matcha.
This is the tea master’s tea. Oolong is semi-oxidized tea, in between green tea and black tea. The edges of the leaves are ‘bruised’ (often by tossing them in baskets) so that the border of the leaves oxidize faster than the middle. Oolong is anywhere from 10-80% oxidized. The more red/darker your leaves are, the more oxidized. It’s hard to tell when they’re dry and brittle, but after you steep your leaves it’s easy to uncurl them to see what they look like.
So, why the tea master’s tea? Good oolong takes a lot of artistry to produce. Chinese tea connoisseurs value a good oolong. The Chinese Gongfu tea ceremony was also largely created around oolong tea.
[white_box]Fun Fact: I’m a big fan of Taiwanese oolong. It has a unique taste and history. Oolong in Taiwan was started by labourers brought over from Fujian province (the home of oolong in China) to work for the Dutch when they were colonizing the island. About fifty years later the Fujianese immigrants kicked the Dutch out and oolong production continued to flourish on the island. Later oolong production was influenced by the arrival of Japanese technology, so today’s Taiwanese oolong production is a mix of Chinese and Japanese techniques.[/white_box]
How to brew: Depending on how oxidized your tea is, anywhere from 85˚-95˚C and I recommend multiple steepings. Your first steeping can be 2 minutes and then increase the length of steep by 10-20 seconds each time. Unlike most teas, oolong can be re-steeped many times and often improves with each steeping.
As you might have noticed, out teas have been getting dark/more oxidized as we go along. Black tea is fully oxidized tea leaves. It’s the most common kind of tea in the western hemisphere (although green is rapidly gaining popularity). Black tea is grown largely in India, China, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Kenya, Malawi and Tanzania.
You can get quite a difference in flavour between the different regions, although generally a rich amber liquor is what we’re looking for. Often times black tea will be scented (ex: black tea with bergamot is a.k.a. Earl Grey). Most of the breakfast tea blends we’re familiar with in the western world is a combination of teas from India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Malawi and Tanzania. Famously, Scottish tea baron Sir Thomas Lipton started his tea empire in Sri Lanka.
How to brew: 95˚-99˚C. If you’re from the Maritimes people here dump about ten tea bags into a craft and leave it all day on the stove. If your palate can’t take strong astringency and tea that can strip the paint off the wall, try instead brewing for 6-7 minutes with one tea bag.
Cakes of pu’erh tea sit in the centre of the green tea caddy.
Fermented or aged tea, stored in square or flat circle cakes. Pu’erh started in the Yunnan province of China. Originally the cakes would be buried after they oxidize. It has a distinct, strong, earthy taste and (I’ve been told) goes well with liver. Food for thought.
How to brew: Water at a rolling boil. This is the only tea that really likes water this hot. Pu’erh is nice to drink in the same style as oolong. The first steep is 15-20 seconds long, then go to 20 seconds, 40 seconds, etc. For an easier western brew, steep for 2 minutes.
A Note on Infusions
A chamomile infusion.
There are a lot of infusions made of hot water and mint, ginseng, chamomile, rooibos, etc. often called tea. But unless there’s some camellia sinensis leaf in there, it’s not tea. It’s an infusion or tisane.
Sometimes people say herbal tea, but that’s always struck me as confusing because it mixes the meaning of tea with infusion.
So now that you know all what’s out there, over the month of January what about giving a new type of tea a try? English Breakfast is great, but have you ever tried Nepalese Black Tea? Or Frozen Summit Taiwanese Oolong?
There’s a whole world of teas out there! What about trying teas from different countries? Do you usually just drink Darjeeling from India, or Sencha from Japan? Try shaking it up with a Ruhuna from Sri Lanka or Bai Mu Dan from China.
I’m looking forward to writing more about tea for January. Speaking of, is there anything you’re interested in? Anything you’d like to know?
If you were looking for an excuse to fill that extra cup of tea, this month is it. Enjoy it, hot tea lovers.
I first met founder Jeff Kovac when he was my instructor during the Tea 101 module of my tea sommelier training with the Tea Association of Canada.
When I first met him (via Skype), I was struck not only by how personable Jeff is, but also by his knowledge of Chinese tea and the Chinese tea industry.
He lived in China for a number of years, and his knowledge of the region gives the Four Seasons Tea Co. a unique advantage.
He knows everything about the tea he’s selling.
Both the Gan Lu and the Jasmine samples Jeff sent me come from Mt. Meng in Sichuan Province. Tea cultivation on Mt. Meng began over 2,000 years ago during the Han dynasty. It’s thought to be one of the first places on earth where tea was cultivated.
The leaves picked for the Four Seasons Tea Co.’s Meng Ding Gan Lu and their signature Snowflake Jasmine are grown in the misty peaks of the mountain. It’s about 800+ metres above sea level for the Gan Lu leaves, and 600-800 metres for those found in the Snowflake Jasmine.
[white_box]Fun Fact: Meng Ding is also the hometown of panda bears.[/white_box]
Meng Ding Gan Lu
Gan Lu means ‘sweet dew’. This tea from Mt. Meng is famous for its sweet aftertaste. People have been making it for thousands of years.
I can see right away that the curly, dry tea leaves have a light silver fuzz. This is a good sign.
A note from Jeff:
“In Sichuan, a lot of Meng Ding Gan Lu is blended with a Bai Hao cultivar. My teas are just high mountain tips ONLY. Not blended.”
Here is the unfurled leaf after infusion. The tips don’t lie.
I had a very pure, bright green-yellow liquor, with a clear, velvety soft taste. There is nothing blended in to dilute the flavour. It slides right over your tongue and hugs your mouth.
There’s a sweet but toasty aftertaste, like green peas or chestnuts.
I can see the jasmine flowers!
It’s funny, but this is an important checkmark for me. I’ve had jasmine tea that has no jasmine flowers in it. That always makes me suspicious – where is the scent supposed to come from?
Here, the tiny white buds unfurl beautifully along with the tea. Beautiful fragrance – not too heavy – and a nice, clean taste from the underlying tea. The warmth of the chestnut flavour works well with the floral.
This is a local favourite in Sichuan.
Jeff told me this Jasmine was incredible and I have to agree. I’m very picky with scented teas because I don’t usually drink them (Earl Grey being the exception), but I’ll definitely be finishing this sample.
Here are three different methods for preparation:
Gaiwan for short infusions: 3 g for 60 ml of water. Pour the tea from the gaiwan into another cup. Do longer and longer infusions. 6s, 8s, 10s, 14s… etc.
Gaiwan with tea: 3 grams for 120 ml of water. Sip and enjoy.
Tall glass with tea: 3 grams just about a cup of water. Leave the tea leaves in while you drink it.
Don’t make your water too hot. 80˚C should do the trick.
Try all three and let me know what you think. I tried both short infusions in the gaiwan, and in a tall glass (mason jar for me).
Four Seasons Tea Co.
This is a brand new Canadian tea company, and I’m very excited about them. I think Jeff will continue to produce high-quality tea informed by his knowledge of the Chinese tea industry, and I look forward to drinking more from them.
Right now they only sell their teas in 100g quantities. That might seem like a lot, but the quality is such that you’ll be wanting more to drink anyway.
Jeff was kind enough to include a discount code for readers to use on their website store. You can get 12% off your order by using the code: MelhadTea12
The code is valid for the next two weeks. From today until Friday, November 27.
You don’t need any maps. The trail is straightforward. When you reach Lake Louise, follow the path that leads towards the back of the lake and you’ll come to the trailhead naturally.
Everything can clearly marked, with lots of good signposts along the way. A lot of the signs were in miles. Canada only got their metric act together in the 70s, and a lot of the signs have been here much longer.
And hey, we made this awesome video to share with you.
It starts off on a rainy morning. We saw lightning strikes as we headed across the Lake Louise Parkway.
We weren’t allowed to film inside the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House. They have a no-media policy to preserve the atmosphere and let their guests tune in to nature instead. Totally fine by me. Their chocolate cake made everything okay.
Okay, so I did sneak one photo. Of this mostly-eaten cake. I couldn’t stop myself; the cake was half-gone before I even picked my camera up.
Not in the video: When we arrived at the Lake Agnes Tea House (with only enough money for one chai!) the staff at the Lake Agnes Tea House gave us a note to take to the staff at the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House. In exchange (and out of the kindness of their hearts) they gave us a cookie.
The two sets of staff hang out together and walk the path between tea houses all the time. They also walk up and down the mountain nearly every day, with trash or to get supplies.
The note said, “See you for church night. Don’t stand us up again!”
I asked our server what church night is.
“Oh, it’s half off wings and beer down in town.”
The Banff Tea Company provides the tea for the Plain of Six Glaciers tea house. I visited the tea company in Banff the day before (because of course I did) and there I learned that the woman who started the Banff Tea Company now owns the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House.
The Banff Tea Company even does a special Plain of Six Glaciers herbal blend. I got this and some of their Traveller’s Tea. They do a lot of specialty blends with rocky mountains and Albertan themes. Definitely visit them if you’re in Banff.
You can’t buy any loose tea at the tea house. Bringing up stock is difficult so they only keep on hand what they need to cook for guests. If you want to buy tea, best stock up in Banff before or after.
The Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House is pretty old. It was built in 1927 by two Swiss guides for the Canadian Pacific Railway. There is also a dog named Arlo-Barlo.
The Lake Agnes Tea House is the oldest tea house in Canada. It was built in 1901 by the Canadian Pacific Railway and started serving tea in 1905. They have been serving tea for 110 years.
Honestly, walking up to the Lake Agnes Tea House was like walking into Rivendell. We were so tired and it was such a paradise. There’s even a waterfall with stairs going up the side you have to climb to get there.
For Canada, that’s mighty old.
That’s a lot of cups of tea.
It was so chilly outside the tea house and warm inside with the ovens going that thick condensation hugged the windows. It was so cozy. I could have spent the whole day here.
I don’t know if you can tell, but I am VERY happy here.
Also, we had some ridiculously good photo weather. I mean, and this is half brag and half incredulity, but just look at these!
I kept feeling like I was in Jurassic Park, or a new Mac OS screensaver. Either way, goddamn lucky. It was rainy and overcast when we left (as you can see in the video). Never thought we’d get clouds or sun like this.
The photo above is a piece of the mountain known as the Big Beehive.
If you do this route, don’t forget to bring cash.
The Lake Agnes Tea house is cash only, and Plain of Six Glaciers did take our VISA, but bring cash, that way you’re good no matter what.
Ask me any questions you want about the trail! Is there anything I forgot to add?
And (of course) a rainbow at the end of the day to tie it all together.
This was a day when I felt really lucky to be alive and be human and get to climb mountains and drink tea and see rainbows.
The world is a really extraordinary place. I’m very privileged and lucky, but you know what? A lot of people who can afford to, don’t even make time for little pleasures, like looking at rainbows, and drinking tea. They say they can’t, or just don’t think of it.
Make time for those things, okay guys? They’re really important.
And you know what? Rainbows are free. Tea is nearly free.
What’s that phrase, “the best things in life…”
Day 16 Costs:
Family Diner, Lupper for 2: $34.29
Lake Agnes Tea House, Chai Latté: $4.00
Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House (chocolate cake, 2 sandwiches, soup with corn chips, chai latte, 2 bottles of water, lemonade): $53.80