Thursday, March 1, 2012

Coffee and Tea Festival NYC 2012

One might call me a tea fanatic. I host an annual Tea Week on my blog, and I consider myself to be pretty well-versed in the world of tea. So when my friend Josh from culinary school informed me that he would be competing in the US Barista Championship (Northeast Regional Competition) at the Coffee and Tea Festival in NYC, I knew I had to check out the event. By the time the two day event rolled around it was completely sold out! Luckily I had a press pass reserved for me. The festival was directly across the street from the Empire State Building, which happily made me feel like a tourist for a day :)

I arrived early (with time to spare) and cheered on my friend Josh who did an excellent job strutting his espresso-making skills for the judges. After showcasing an espresso, a cappuccino, and a specialty drink for judge tasting, he headed over to the Barista Tasting Station where each of the competing baristas would be making samples for patrons to try. I must say, the macchiato he made me was absolute perfection! Not only was it made with love (my steamed milk resembled a heart), but it was smooth and tasty without a hit of the bitterness I usually try to cover up with sugar. Magnifique!

Josh competing in the Barista Competition

Aside from the very exciting Barista Competition, there were dozens of vendors throughout the space representing everything from coffee to tea and even some baked goods (is there anything that goes better with coffee or tea?). Free tasting samples were abundant, as were some take-home sample tea bags and such. Special prices were offered from magazines and shops that usually would charge more in a non-festival setting. Some of the vendors that I visited and enjoyed include Tea Classics, Harney and Sons, Tavalon, Capital Teas, and Tea Tangent (which featured hand-made wooden tea accessories such as honey sticks called BeeSticks). For a full list of exhibitors, look here. Each booth had it's own special atmosphere, from the ultra-modern Tavalon set up, to the more colorful Harney and Sons with bright tins of tea portioned out in sachets for convenient brewing.

Josh's interview after he finished competing

I met and spoke with the owners of most of the companies represented, and I must say that they were very congenial, down-to-Earth, and helpful in responding to my questions regarding their business and tea in general. Many of these coffee and tea purveyors have been in business for generations. The president of Capital Teas, for example, is the 5th generation in the tea business in her family. It's actually very inspiring to see how much these people love what they do. I was also thrilled to see such a large showing for a festival devoted fully to 2 beverages: coffee and tea. These avid fans were anxious to not only sample but purchase many of the wonderful goods for sale at the event.

Espresso macchiato perfection, with love!

I was perhaps most excited about the free seminars featured daily. There were 4 different seminars each day. Due to time restrictions, I was only able to attend the first seminar, which was the one I really wanted to check out anyway. Tea Master Yoon Hee Kim took the audience on a journey through China, Korea, and Japan to compare green teas from each country. She discussed differences in the terrain and climate where the tea grows, differences in harvesting techniques, differences between pan-fried or steamed tea (or a hybrid of the two techniques), and so much more.

For example, while most tea plantations in China and Korea take on an artisanal approach, where all steps are performed by actual people, by hand, in Japan, they use greater technology to perform the same tasks using machines, but the machines are smart enough to know which tea leaves to pick and which to leave behind. The quality of the tea is the same as its counterparts, but the method is vastly different. Also, Japanese green teas are usually steamed to stop oxidization, whereas Chinese greens usually utilize pan or hand-frying, and Korean greens often use a hybrid technique where they are flash steamed and then pan-fried. This was a small percentage of what I learned in this very informative seminar! Let's just say, I took lots of notes :-D Nerd much? haha

Yoon Hee Kim was also offering small classes at the event for a nominal fee. I decided to embark on a focused Korean tea tasting for a mere $10. In this small group, we experienced and tasted a Korean matcha ceremonial tea (which undoubtedly reminded me of the tea ceremony scene in the Karate Kid Part II right before the monsoon hits... yeah, good times). It's definitely an acquired taste. I thought it tasted very vegetal and perhaps grassy, but even with some bitter notes I enjoyed it overall. It was definitely unique, but not something one would drink on a regular basis. We also tried another green tea called Jakseol, or Sparrow's Tongue, which I really loved and would seek out in the future. Finally we tasted a delicious Oolong from Tea Classics/Hancha Tea (Yoon Hee Kim's company) called Amber Gold. I'm a fan of Oolong teas, which fall between green teas and black teas in their oxidization and caffeine levels. This one was delicious.

Ceremonial Korean Matcha green tea

She also demonstrated the proper way to hold a Korean tea cup, which was pretty cool and not something I had ever really learned before. You hold the cup with your right hand with your thumb at 6 o'clock and your other fingers at 12 o'clock and place your other hand flat underneath like a coaster. You hold the cup close to your body near your waist and lift to capture the aroma, and then when it's time to take a drink, you turn the cup slightly to avoid your thumb placement and take a sip like that. Of course, guests must wait until the host discreetly turns aside, tastes the tea, and then gives them a nod that it's alright to drink. These customs are very intriguing, as they are less familiar to me, and I'm sure to others. Overall this was a great learning experience.

How to hold a tea cup...

I definitely give two thumbs up to the Coffee and Tea Festival NYC! I was pleasantly surprised to see so many coffee and tea lovers milling around the event space, filling up seminars until they were standing room only, and tasting and buying high quality products. If you'd like to check out the Coffee and Tea Festival Atlantic City later this year, it will take place November 3rd through 4th. Thanks to Starfish Junction Productions for allowing me the opportunity to attend this amazing event. I hope to be a repeat visitor in future years.


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