Thursday, February 25, 2010

NYC Coffee And Tea Festival

NYC is a cool place but I'm not sure I could ever live there. Commute? Probably. There are a lot of things that I really enjoy about it. This can mainly be summed up as the sheer volume and eccentricity of cultural cuisine represented in the metropolitan area. Just walking down the street yielded several restaurants of all different cultures and regions. As an amateur foodie and professional fatty, it was pretty great. Definitely something not available upstate. Not just in food but in beverage too. In the city, not only is beverage a necessity but a pleasure as well. Eclectic and artisan tea shops, coffee shops, bars, etc. are abundant in the city. As a bound-in-blood drinker of all of life's imbibe-ables, this too is quite awesome. There seems t
o be almost a certain respect for the craftsman's art of good coffee and tea in the city. Upstate i
t's far less pronounced. Many places focusing on tea (like the tea shop that got me started) quic
kly go out of business. I feel that upstate, tea is something you find on the grocer's shelf, pre-sealed in tea bags. It's not a loose beverage. Coffee fairs better but only because it's wake-up juice. The local coffee roaster does booming business and has for years but it almost seems like its viewed more as a jump-start to the day rather than a beverage worth a sensory investment. These are just my thoughts though.

As you may or may not know, over the weekend I covered the NYC Coffee and Tea Festival as press. It was, in short, wonderful to see so many either curious enough to drop a Jackson on the entrance fee or those dedicated to fine beverage. Both were there in spades, let me tell you. The 11th floor of the 7West building seemed like a vast sea of coffee and tea when the elevators first opened on that slightly cold but exhilarating February day. I entered the room and hit the road running, so to speak. There were vendors to peruse and companies to chat with and hell if I was going to miss any one company. I won't give you a play by play of the THREE AND A HALF HOURS I spent there but rather the highlights. Here we go:

Highlight one: Hancha Tea. Run by Yoon Hee Kim, a woman quite adept with all nuances of Korean tea. There were some fabulous samples there. The mulberry tea was quite nice with a flavor that stumped me in a delicious way. It reminded me of a buttered root vegetable (they said it reminded them of butternut squash). They had a chrysanthemum tea too which I didn't actually like due to its inherent natural sweetness. It was like drinking stevia in water, to be honest but a lot of people at the show raved about it. To each their own, I suppose. The final and best thing about the Hancha tea booth was the one purchase I made that day: individual pu erh cakes in both raw and cooked. They are no larger than an Oreo cookie and no thicker than a pack of matches. Circular with the classic pu erh dimple, they individually packed in small sealed plastic packaging. The cooked is very earthy and robust while the raw (my favorite) has a delicate peppery-ness and spice to it. I can't find a whole lot of info on it (the packaging is in Chinese) so if you know Mandarin (I think it is), let me know. I've got a project for ya.

Highlight two: Montauk Beverage. You know how I feel about these guys. If you don't, look here. Raymond was a very nice guy and his product is fantastic. You know the drill. Buy en masse.

Highlight three: Harney and Sons. You also know how I feel about the Harney family. I won't bother linking the multiple reviews I've done of their teas and facilities. Unfortunately, none of the Harney family was able to make it. I did manage to meet their newest exchange student who is here from France working in the factory. She was exceedingly nice and put up with my tea geek tendencies. If you're reading this, French girl, sorry I didn't stop back to see you. I had a train to catch.

Highlight four: Bailey's new coffee creamers. No link yet and I accidentally left their press docket at home. Whoops. I'll have further details on this next week when I get back to my house. They had a few flavors. I tried the Hazelnut and it wasn't any different than most other Hazelnuts but it was a bit richer. It was extremely interesting to see a traditionally alcoholic beverage brand branch into a non-alcoholic market but I'd reserve judgment until I see price points.

Highlight five: The Great Spirits Baking Company. Orange almond cake soaked in Patron Citronge. Apricot ginger cake soaked in Drambruie. They were extremely moist, absolutely delicious, and had a proof. Happy Scott is happy. I realllly wanted to try the Pyrat soaked dark chocolate raisin cake and mocha double chocolate chunk soaked in Padron XO but the stand was mobbed. Sad Scott has empty tummy.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE DAY: Fang Gourmet Tea. This was, without a doubt, my favorite stand at the festival. I rounded a corner and came upon a huge set-up of all things tea. They had extremely handsome yixing clay teapots, beautiful gaiwans and...stacks and stacks of pu erh. Lots and lots of pu erh tongs (not the grabbing pasta type but the seven cake stacks of pu erh sold as one unit). It was...beautiful. There were ladies briskly brewing up tea to try. They had an excellent oolong that I tried straight off the bat. It was sweet and floral and delicious. I wish I could remember the name of it. I then tried a rose tea that I didn't care for. I was desperate to try some of the pu erh though. One of the kind workers informed me that you could sign up for their Fang Tea Club (complete with membership card!) and you could get a discount on a gong fu style tea tasting. Well hot damn! After signing up and dropping ten small ($10 a person) we sat at a beautiful tea table with a very nice guy bustling about and pouring tea. He was brewing in the gong fu style. Minimalist infusions (about 30-45 seconds) done in a well sealed gaiwan that was drained into a communal pot and distributed into tiny little cups. The big pot may seem odd but its actually a nice feature. To pour directly from the gaiwan would leave the cups later in the pour with a stronger infusion. The jug allows a uniform infusion for all.

When we first sat, Ki (our amazing tea guide) was into a steeping of "Big Leaf Loose Pu erh". It was an incredible infusion. It had a definite aged quality to it with a sea brine like taste and earthy-ness that mellowed as the infusions progressed. I don't know what infusion we started on but we sat for 6 infusions of that leaf and watched it evolve. It was...delicious. We then moved onto the Dong Ding Oolong Honey Aroma which ended up being the tea I had tasted when I first stopped by. It was rich and slightly grassy with a honey tinge in the background and a tart astringency that oscillated through each infusion. It was...very good and Ki said it was a classic Taiwanese tea that pretty much put them on the tea map. Ki was a collector of yixing pots and had some pots in his collection going back to almost 400 years old. I keep telling myself that using yixing pots and gaiwans is a bad idea mainly due to the fact that I find them incredibly beautiful despite their incredible price. I'm also extremely clumsy. Bad combo.

Ki enlightened me to the fact that they do monthly tea tastings in Flushing which I am planning on attending at some point. I've already mapped things out and I can get to their store in two stops from Poughkeepsie once I'm home for break. Or, well...for good come summer. Graduating is a bitch. All in all, this booth was the highlight of the trip and I will definitely be visiting the Fang Gourmet Tea shop in Flushing at some point. Ki recommended a few pu erhs that they have to me and...well...damn it, I think I have to buy them. For the sake of the blog, of course.

The festival itself was nice and I enjoyed going. There was ample room and plenty of good cold water to cut the massive amount of caffeinated and piping hot beverages that flowed freely. The women's bathroom had a line (according to my press buddy, my mom. Hi mom!) but the men's room was devoid of users. Other than that hiccup, it was a great day and a pleasure to attend.

And now...some pictures of the gong-fu tea tasting. First, setting out the cups. He then filled them with hot water to bring the porcelain up to temperature:

Next up is filling the gaiwan with hot water. At this point, he'd already had the pu erh in there for a few steeps (he actually forgot how many steeps we had done):

Letting it brew:
Getting ready to pour it into the pot:

Filling the cups:

Dinner of champions:

Yeah, that's right. I shave with The Art of Shaving Sandalwood products. Such a smooth shave. Love that crap.

Finally, a picture of the warning sign on the train in case of emergency:

One of my favorite things is to ignore the wording under the pictures and interpret it myself. Here's a rough estimate:

1) Pretend you hear an evacuation siren.
2) Don't step into a puddle when you pretend to evacuate the train.
3) Go back into train and go one car up.
4) Lock door. Wave to everyone outside.
5) Rejoice in a now empty car! Pick your favorite seat.

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