Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Tea People: Steven Knoerr of The 39 Steeps

Today we're visiting with The 39 Steeps blogger/tea reviewer Steven Knoerr. Please feel free to leave comments or questions for Steven after the interview.

Q. Why did you decide to blog about tea?

A. I write about tea to remember what I've learned. I started sharing my tea experiences on Facebook, a group called, "A Cup of Tea Solves Everything." At one point, the comments section disappeared for a few days, which prompted me to copy pretty much all my posts onto a blog for safekeeping. But the blog has taken on a life of its own, and coordinates nicely with Twitter to keep me in contact with my new friends who can teach me so much about tea culture.

Q. How do you decide which teas to review?

A. I only want to review teas that I believe I will love. And typically, the teas I love are simple leaves with no additives. Recently, I joined the staff of, and they kindly send me samples I can enjoy. But I do also review teas that acquaintances send me.

Q. What’s your favorite kind of teaware to brew in?

A. Most of the time, I use my Great-Great-Grandmother's porcelain Japanese teapot. However, I've been studying up and shopping for Yixing pots and gaiwan sets, which I'll purchase as soon as the knowledge and funds come together at the right moment.

Q. Do you prefer a cup & saucer, mug, glass or gaiwan?

A. I typically drink from a set of Russian podstakanniki, which consist of small leaded-crystal glasses set in a metal holder. Honestly, I don't very much like the English flowers-and-doilies aesthetic, and the podstakinniki are nicely clunky and masculine.

Q. Do you take your tea straight up, or with sugar and/or milk?

A. Straight up. I find the best teas are very rarely bitter, and certainly never overwhelmingly so. Milk and sugar change the flavor profile so much (milk, particularly) that I can't really discern what the manufacturers originally intended. Milk is probably best with thick Assam-type teas or what the British would call, "bog-quality" teas.

Q. Do you remember the first cup of tea you drank? How was it?

A. I do remember. It was appalling. In my house growing up, I hated the years-old Lipton tea that sat, opened, in the cabinet forever. Eventually we'd drink the horribly oversteeped, stale teabags with plenty of sugar and milk to help mitigate the bitterness. I could not imagine that people would drink this stuff for pleasure.

Q. When did you make the switch to loose leaf teas (or have you)?

A. When attending University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, I discovered a tea store: Walnut Street Tea Company. They had a wide variety of primarily flavored, loose-leaf teas. I came to love Russian caravan teas and gravitated toward the black teas.

Q. Do you drink tea predominantly for health or enjoyment – or both?

A. Primarily, I drink for enjoyment. Delight, really. Tea is endlessly fascinating, because there are so many flavors, aromas, textures, and levels of complexity locked in these leaves. Thousands of years of humans cooperating with nature, with untold hours of ingenuity, creativity, attention to pleasure, and a desire to create something delightful and perfect have led us to be able to enjoy something truly amazing.

Q. What are your three favorite teas?

A. There are so many. In general, I love Darjeelings and other Himalayan teas, followed by complex oolongs, and then bright, floral greens. But those are categories, rather than specific teas. If forced to choose, I would have to say:
* 2009 1st-Flush Arya Estate, Darjeeling, Clonal variety, which just lifted the top off my head when I tasted's offering.
* 2009 1st-Flush Jun Chiyabari Estate, Nepal, which is available through TeaGschwendner. It's like a very high-end Darjeeling, and just delightful. I'm anxiously waiting to taste the rest of their offerings, which should be arriving in the next couple weeks.
* Dan Cong oolongs, which come from I don't know enough to tell you which variety I love the best, but the Honey Orchid aroma is stunning. It's tea from the Phoenix Mountains in China, which have been bred to have an enormous variety of unusual aromas and flavors, such as cattleya orchid, or almond, or jasmine, or ginger flower-- but they aren't artificially scented in any way.

Q. What’s your favorite pairing of food with white, green and black teas?

A. Most of the time, when I am drinking my very favorite teas, I find that food distracts from the delicate and complex tea aromas. I drink tea without accompaniment.

Q. Do you have a favorite tea company? Which one, and why?

A. I do love TeaGschwendner, because they have a wide variety of Darjeelings of quite high quality.

Q. Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

A. Americans do not have an established tea culture. There are historical reasons that this is so, going back to the Boston Tea Party. The downside, obviously, is that no one around me knows anything about it. But I believe Americans are like people everywhere: If they are exposed to a good thing, they will want it. If most of my countrymen are like me, growing up drinking execrable, stale teabag teas, they will be delighted to find that this stuff can be really good, and it can engage the senses and excite the palate as much as fine wines, or cigars, or cheeses, or other connoisseur-level enjoyments. I am delighted to be part of the burgeoning tea Renaissance in the U.S., and I hope my writing adds something to other people's knowledge and enjoyment of this agreeable topic.

Thanks so much for that wonderful peek into your tea preferences and philosphy, Steven.

To contact Steven and read his tea reviews, visit The 39 Steeps.


  1. Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to share my tea thoughts with you. I look forward to getting to know you better!


  2. Darjeelings, huh? This makes me want to try more Black Tea. I was greatly inspired by when Steven said that tea has been developed by so many people for so many years. All that time and effort and knowledge! It is indeed amazing what goes into the cup of a fine tea.

  3. Hi, Jason. You're typically a Chinese green drinker, right?

    Tea in Darjeeling is typically Camellia sinensis sinensis, the Chinese varietal (as opposed to Camellia sinensis assamica). They tried to plant the Chinese varietal elsewhere in India, but it only seemed to like growing up on the Himalayas in Darjeeling.

    First-flush Darjeelings, in particular, are black teas that seem to lean in toward the Chinese greens, and they would strongly remind you of them. They are grown very early in the year, and thus they are pretty light, and they have a great astringency. In a way, the best Darjeelings lean toward those Chinese greens in much the same way that Mozart and Beethoven reach toward one another. In that golden zone where they meet, magic can happen. (I'd put the Nepali tea I mentioned in that zone, as well.)

    Thunderbolt Tea has a great variety of Darjeelings (1st and 2nd flush). I'd encourage you to contact them. Second flushes have just arrived, as well, and they have an entirely unique flavor territory of their own.

    Thanks for the comment, and thanks, "Tea on Tap," for the forum to discuss these things!

  4. I had a gorgeous 1st flush Darjeeling from Risheehat estate last year, it was a delight to drink and with a beautifully-made leaf too - well-twisted, fine, purple tinges here and there. I am really interested in trying a wider variety of single-estate Darjeelings - will check out your recommendations for vendors, and hope they ship to Australia :)!

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  6. Veri-Tea, I say unto you, unless the teas have fruits and so on, you should have no problem having teas shipped from Darjeeling to Australia.

  7. That's the best news I've heard all day :)

  8. You're most welcome, and thanks for hosting the comments! Interesting observations about Darjeelings being closer to Chinese greens. That might explain why I'm extremely picky about them - I'm not fond of Chinese greens in general, and tend to prefer 2nd flush Darjeelings to 1st.

    Great discussion!

  9. Jamie, I just attended a TeaGschwendner tasting of Himalayan teas, which included first- and second-flush teas from Darjeeling, Nepal, and a couple other regions. It's been a while since I tasted a number of teas like this at once, and I was so happy to dig in again. The second-flush Phuguri estate tea from Darjeeling was just stunning, even though it was plucked about a year ago. I'm certain the new crop will be great, as well. Definitely worth a try, if you like those second-flushes.

  10. Thanks for the head's up, Steven...I'll check out that estate's 2nd flush. Payday is next week...


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