Differences in Darjeeling

Today I was drinking a cup of Darjeeling tea, from a bag as must be done at some point or other in one’s life, and thinking about the emphatic monogram, “The Champagne of Tea” that is printed on the package. I realized that much of the Western world is probably just as confused by that label as I once was.

I remember as a younger tea drinker, sipping a recently steeped mug of Darjeeling tea and reading the eponomous phrase, and thinking, “this tastes just like a regular black tea. Why do they make it sound like something special? Maybe my taste buds just aren’t up to the task. I better pretend it’s mind blowing.” And so I would smile and thank my host, exclaiming how much better this cup was than the “regular” tea I usually had, wondering secretly if I was just never cut out to drink tea.

It turns out that my instinct was right. In most big company tea bags, there really isn’t a lot of difference in flavor between an Assam, an English Breakfast, or a Darjeeling. Oh sure, the base leaves are from different locations (maybe, although it’s likely they are all from Africa) but nearly all bagged tea is the dregs of the harvest anyway, and all of it ends up being bold, tannic, and blunt. It’s no wonder the Western world loves their sugar and cream.

I’ve since learned a few things about Darjeeling tea. There is a reason why it once earned the “Champagne” moniker, and why its most valuable harvests can sometimes fetch a thousand dollars a kilogram.

First it’s worth mentioning what kind of tea leaves we’re talking about. Darjeeling gardens grow hybrids that are mostly Camellia Sinensis Sinensis, that is, Chinese tea. When the British first managed to steal the secret of tea growing from the Chinese (a feat of espionage rarely seen since), they planted their tea seeds in the Darjeeling region and began growing tea in a manner similar to the techniques learned from the Middle Country. The results were sweet flavors, golden tips, and a heady aroma that’s often compared to wine. It wasn’t until many years later that the British (and the Indian population after them) gained an appreciation for the stronger, more bold flavors of Camellia Sinensis Assamica, the tea native to the Indian subcontinent.

darjeeling_ff2014_goomteeThe other big factor that goes into the most sought-after Darjeeling tea is the harvest. You may have heard of a “First Flush”. Seek it out! The first flush, or first harvest of the year holds the nutrients and energy that the tea plant has been storing all winter long and has finally released to create this cup of tea for you. The second flush (a summer harvest) can be quite tasty as well, but a really classy First Flush Darjeeling is a life experience. To be fair, all the qualities that make a delicious Darjeeling are the same that go into any good tea, but Darjeeling has the unique position, historically speaking, of being grown and produced by a culture more familiar to the West. This made it much more accessible to the Western aristocracy and the original harvests probably blew the minds of the lucky people who drank it.

A first flush should be a flaxen gold in the cup, have the aroma of sweet white grapes (this is often called “muscatel”), and the taste should be mellow and rich, energizing the mind and body. The strength is such that a few cups will have you flying, but without any acidic bite. If you were to add milk or sugar to such a tea, you would taste nothing but the milk and sugar, but it has a potency that rivals a bitter black tea.

darjeeling_ff2014_goomtee_leaves“But wait,” you say, “how can a black tea be light yellow? It sounds like you’re describing some sort of green tea!” Well, you’re not entirely wrong. When harvesting First and Second flush Darjeeling, in order to keep the leaves from oxidizing too quickly, they are quickly dried during their processing. This dryness deactivates many of the enzymes that cause oxidation, but not all of them, making First Flush maybe something of an oolong (partially oxidized) tea. That’s not quite right, though, since it has none of the rolling steps common to oolongs. So if not a black tea, and not an oolong, and not a green tea, what is it? Let’s just say that the six categories of tea are not all-encompassing and call it a Darjeeling.

Of course, due to its unique nature, care must be used when brewing a quality Darjeeling tea. Only twenty seconds too much steeping time, and bitterness can overwhelm even the best harvest. Twenty seconds too short can serve you a cup of flavored water. Getting the right taste requires experimentation and attention, and above all, fresh leaves!

So the next time you try a “special” bagged tea and think, “what’s so special about this?”, remember that legends are always based on reality, and the real thing exists out there somewhere, if you’re willing to look.

Nan Nuo Shan

Another one of my samples from Jalam Teas was a lovely packet of Nan Nuo Shan (南糯山) Sheng puer. (Caveat lector: normally Jalam sends their tea in 100g cakes, but as I signed up late I received this sample.) I’ve been excited to try this one because I already have a fondness for teas from the Nan Nuo Shan range.

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I’ve tasted several teas from this mountain area in the deep south of Yunnan province and, although I don’t believe that there’s any real consistency for tea from a place, I’ve loved every one. There’s something very inviting about the flavors they exhibit. Some kind of “welcome home” sort of energy. And to be honest I haven’t even been that far south in China, so I guess it’s just the tea.

One of my first encounters with Nan Nuo Shan tea was in the market streets of Lijiang, an adventure which I’ve written about before.

These particular leaves have the aroma of mango: fruity, but not sugar-sweet. It’s intoxicating. Even though the leaves are a little broken, they are definitely consistent in size and rather large (even after shipping in a small packet, which is impressive).

Following the instructions on Jalam’s site, I made my first few infusions at 20 seconds and increased the time by about 10 seconds for each subsequent infusion from there. The results were delightful. The taste is something like pine, or like the flavor of eating a raw mushroom: woody with a savory and sweet quality all at once. This held consistently for about fifteen infusions, so I was not disappointed.

Bada Mountain Fermented Puer

I recently subscribed to Jalam Tea’s monthly deliveries, and since the current month’s bing was already sold out, I received a hoard of samples of previous puer selections. Last week I had a go at the Meng Song. Today I tried the 2012 Bada Mountain Fermented (it seems that Jalam refers to their Shou puer as “fermented” and their Sheng as “unfermented” or with no classifier).

Photo Mar 19, 4 56 37 PMFirst I love that Jalam has a whole page and several videos dedicated to each tea. It really makes learning about the tea and its origin a fun experience. Location and skill of the producer are really what sets different tea apart, especially with Puer, but it’s so difficult to learn about those things from even respected vendors, East or West. The best thing is to visit the producer yourself or taste a whole lot of tea to get to know a factory. What Jalam offers is a good compromise: inexpensive, decent amounts of tea from unique regions and a full page of info about where it came from. Stéphane at Teamasters offers a similar experience with tea from Taiwan (mostly oolong), although somewhat less formally. His packages always give the precise location and date of harvest, which is a rare treat.

This Puer really surprised me, which is not easy for a Shou. I did a double sniff-take when I smelled the damp leaves. The aroma was so unusual: really rich in a dark plum sort of way that reminds me more of a black assam than a Shou Puer. Certainly there’s the character of moss and peat that I hope for in such a tea, but this has something more intriguing.

Photo Mar 19, 4 58 43 PMAfter slightly bungling my last attempt with these packages, I resolved to make a more careful infusion. I used a gaiwan to ensure control and I used only 4 grams of leaf since the packaging of the samples caused a little more breakage than would have occurred in a cake. If I were making this from a bing, I would probably use my usual 6 grams and maybe infuse a little longer.

Photo Mar 19, 4 59 52 PMThe taste has some of the bite I associate with Assamica leaf, which makes sense since the cultivar used for Puer is a large-leaf relative of the tea grown in Northern India. But saying it tastes like a black tea is a inaccurate description; it’s not really astringency that I taste — which is what I imagined when I read about the “nice smooth bite” on the package — it’s more of a brightness or zing in the mouth. Even using that term is complicated, though. Usually when I speak of a bright assam black tea, there’s a kick of potency close behind, but there is no kick here. Like the label says, it’s smooth all the way.

After 6 infusions the flavors were still going strong. I could probably drink this tea all day. In fact, I picked it up several hours later and made about 4 more infusions before the taste began to plateau.

I’m not sure that I would head for this tea all the times that I’m feeling in the mood for a Shou Puer. It has fewer of the stomach-soothing properties than my other bings. I would probably enjoy it more as the package suggests, as a morning tea to wake up the mind and body without the potency of an Assam or Darjeeling. Altogether it has been quite a fascinating experience to taste yet another quality that Puer is capable of exhibiting. The world of tea is truly never completely mapped.

 

 

 

Jalam Teas Meng Song Puer

I already have a delicious Meng Song (Bamboo) Puer from Stone Leaf Tea, so when I received this 2012 Sheng Meng Song from Jalam Teas it went right into my pot.

Photo Mar 09, 1 55 41 PMAs you shall see, my first impressions were less than stellar, but in this case it was my fault. I have a fairly small yixing pot I use for my Sheng tea, and it may be that 6g of loose leaf was a bit too much for the size, or possibly the leaves I used were just more broken than I expected (this came in a sample pack and not a cake). Either way, no matter how I tried, the pot poured like a sloth and the taste was chaotic.

The first infusion had the taste of pine sap and a bright yellow liquor. It had the feel of a lot of energy without much focus. The taste immediately dried out the tongue with the bite of ash and the dryness of a walnut.  Jeff Fuchs writes in the tea’s description,

It is a revitalizing tea that hits all points of the mouth and is a tea that isn’t a subtle tea but rather more of a tea that hits the palate with an impact.

“Well, that’s accurate”, I thought to myself, but I strongly suspected that this leaf could do better. Immediately I inspected the inside of the pot. A slow pour is never a good thing and can often be the sign of a poorly-made tea pot (yet another reason a Gaiwan is usually the best idea when tasting a new tea). I knew my pot was sound, so that meant that the leaves were just clogging the filter.

I tried removing a gram or two of leaves from the pot, particularly small sticks and very broken bits. I think this is a step that tasters often miss: if a tea is too strong, it’s easy to just take out some leaf.

It worked! The pour became much more fluid and fast. The fourth infusion began to exhibit flavors of cedar and packed much less of a punch. I pulled out a few more leaves.

At the sixth infusion there were definite fruit flavors appearing, which I had smelled in the wet leaves from the beginning: crisp (not sugary) peach or pears. The tea had gone from explosive to energizing and from brash to delicious!

As with many teas, the trick to finding the best flavor here was achieving a balance between steep time and leaf quantity such that the water has enough time to acquire the flavor of the tea without becoming too strong in the process. This is a tricky equation and often requires some experimentation. Too many leaves or too slow a pour can disrupt the balance. Once I found it, I easily got a tasty ten infusions from this tea before it lost its potency. I hope to drink this again soon, perhaps with a gaiwan to be more fair to the leaf.

Painter’s Roast Oolong

Of all the many, many (read: too many) teas I brought back from Taiwan, the most eloquent was a small unlabeled pouch of rolled oolong carefully hand-roasted by a man in Lùgǔ (鹿谷鄉). As I’ve just sipped the last of that fine vintage, I thought I might tell you the story of where I found it.

Perhaps I should first explain why I think this tea is so special. Certainly it has all the qualities of a first class tea, from its smooth mouth-feel to the blissful aroma of sweet roasted chestnut as the liquor engulfs my senses. Yet those mundane aspects are only one level of the intrigue at play here. What really draws me to this tea is a characteristic that is difficult to put into words. Some people call this Cha Qi (茶氣). It’s something like the energy of the tea.

Photo Feb 24, 2 54 41 PMSome tea tastes great or has a very interesting aroma, but after drinking it I feel unsettled. A tea which leaves me feeling at peace in mind and body is a tea which I consider to have good Cha Qi, and it is a rare thing indeed. This tea has Cha Qi in abundance, and I wonder what it must take to craft such magic from plants. If you’d like to read more about this elusive quality, Stéphane has a good discussion on his blog and TeaChat has one as well, but you’ll probably have to experience it for yourself.

These fine leaves originated in Nántóu (南投縣), the only land-locked county on the whole island. While Taiwan is generally an easy place to navigate with English, smaller regions like Nántóu can make life a little more interesting. As we got off the bus in front of the Lùgǔ 7-11 (they’re everywhere in Taiwan), there was some confusion about our bus tickets. In order to exit the bus, you had to hand your ticket to the driver to prove you had paid for that leg of the journey, but one member of our group had already misplaced his ticket. In the ensuing chaos, we met a very nice woman getting off at the same stop who helped us communicate to the bus driver and resolve the situation.

We only knew of one person in the town, a man who worked at the renowned Lùgǔ Farmer’s Association, but we weren’t sure where we might be able to stay. Fortunately the nice woman at the bus stop (whose English was excellent) led us to a sort of bed-and-breakfast she knew across the street. Apparently the building was also attached to some sort of school for children where she taught art classes. And of course, like many people in Lùgǔ, the owners of the house were involved with tea production. 

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A good place to stay if you’re ever in Lugu.

We immediately started exploring the small and friendly town and learning about its vibrant tea culture. In the last few decades that culture had been in decline until the Farmer’s Association was created to preserve the traditions of the growers, pickers, and craftsmen of the region. At one point we browsed a small tea exhibit at the town hall and the employees there took a keen interest in us. I think that having Americans touring their town was quite a rare thing. Since they didn’t speak much English and our Mandarin was non-existent, they called up someone they assured us could help. As good luck would have it, our friend from the Farmer’s Association walked in the door! He had a busy schedule but told us a little about the town and then promised that he could make more time to chat if we could wait until the following day. Not wanting to take advantage of his kindness, we agreed to spend the rest of the day wandering on our own.

 

Our tea friend and translator.

Our tea friend and translator.

After another hour had passed we found a very interesting shop on the far side of the town. Being able to tell the difference between a shop and someone’s home is often very difficult in Taiwan; they’re frequently one and the same. This place was run solely by a very kind man who clearly knew about tea (his home-made tea station was something to behold) but whose primary activity appeared to be brush painting. He spoke not a word of English, but we sat and enjoyed tea with him just the same, jovially munching on sunflower seeds and observing the varied paintings that surrounded us.

As we were preparing to leave, we wanted very much to purchase some of his really excellent tea but at that point our ability to communicate without words completely broke down, so the painter called someone up on the phone. We figured that he knew someone who spoke English and could translate for us. Imagine our surprise when our Farmer’s Association friend again walked in the door. Apparently he was the one to call if you needed to talk to foreigners, but we felt very guilty for disturbing his work twice in one day.

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It turns out that the painter did not actually produce any tea, but would purchase mostly-finished tea leaves from the farmers and then roast it himself in a large electrically-heated bamboo basket: quite an art in and of itself. It was very much an education on the amazing effect that a carefully executed roast can have on a tea leaf. Of course the base tea needs to be of a high quality as well, but by roasting the leaves just enough to engage their mouth-watering fragrance without burning anything, the master of roasting can transform a good tea into an outstanding tea. I have cherished my small bag of “Painter’s Roast” ever since and I hope someday to return to Lùgǔ to pay my respects to that master (and, of course, to get some more tea!).

Gui Fei at Stone Leaf Tea House

Yesterday was a beautiful lazy Saturday, and my wife had the brilliant suggestion to spend our afternoon drinking tea someplace we don’t get to nearly often enough: Stone Leaf Tea House in Middlebury. As we sat and tasted some fine Gui Fei oolong I realized I have never written about this wonderful tea destination, despite it being one of the three nearest tearooms to my home. (Of course, I have written about some of the tea before.)

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My favorite part about visiting Stone Leaf is the intimacy of the experience; when I step in the door and look across the beautiful wooden counter, I’m immediately greeted by John (the owner and a friend) or another one of the skillful tea masters who work there. I tend to immediately launch into a discussion about the newest teas on the menu or some new tea pot on display. Talking about the tea helps me to settle into the space as I consider what I’d like to drink that day. I can be very indecisive (there’s so many great options!), but John is very skilled at guiding the conversation toward a specific few teas that I will probably enjoy. I see it happen even with those customers that are brand new to the greater tea world: before they even sit down there’s often already a perfect tea picked out.

To be fair, this sort of skill in tea recommendation is what I appreciate from all of my favorite tea shops. What I think sets Stone Leaf apart is the unhurried nature of the exchange. I know first-hand how difficult it can be to run a tea room and try to give each person the attention they deserve in a shop full of customers. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. This may be just the times I happen to visit, but I’ve never felt a need to hurry up when at Stone Leaf.

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Finally, and not the least impressive: the selection of teas is top-notch. Stone Leaf is always importing the freshest tea nearly as soon as it is harvested. John even roasts some of his own oolongs; there are very few tea shops in the West that can claim that skill. I definitely recommend some house roasted Jin Xuan, if you have the opportunity to visit.

The Gui Fei we tasted was gentle and smooth with a really entrancing aroma and a light body. The air around the tea seemed to take on a delicate floral sweetness, like standing in a field of spring blooms: not pungent or overwhelming, but undeniably present and comforting.

The consistency of the leaves was a welcome find. Each rolled ball contained around five full leaves all still attached to the stem. The leaves were of small-to-medium size, but I think that the presence of so many complete leaf sets helped to create the smoothness of the tea. After the fifth or sixth infusion the liquor began to take on a more bold, coconut aroma and flavor. I love a tea that presents a whole new side of itself as the infusions progress.

A heart-felt thanks to Stone Leaf for bringing us such a fine tea!

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Cultivars and Places in Tea Names

Tea naming is an interesting art, and it’s easy for us Westerners to be confused by the plethora of naming conventions out there. I think a little primer might be helpful.

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Let’s take a tea name like Gao Shan Ali Shan Jin Xuan Milk Oolong. That’s a lot of words! But we can break it up pretty easily to learn more about our tea. Within we will find:

1. The height of the tea garden.

2. The place the tea was grown.

3. The cultivar used.

4. A common use-name.

In this case we’re going through a Chinese tea name because I think that can be the hardest to understand, but the same principles apply to tea from other countries. There may, however, be more information as well, such as the leaf size or grade.

“Gāo Shān” (高山) literally means “High Mountain”. It refers to tea grown in a garden above 1000 meters. Many of the oolong teas from Taiwan fall into this category. The theory goes that if a tea is grown at a higher elevation, it will tend toward lighter, sweeter flavors as the increased sunlight and decreased temperature affect the leaf. This is not universally true, of course, but Gao Shan oolongs usually do have those qualities.

tea_culitvarsMany teas include the place name for the mountain or region in which the tea was grown. This has led to some famous locations throughout the tea growing world, and plenty of counterfeits. Ālǐ Shān (阿里山) is one of the most popular tea mountains in Taiwan and so you can often find “Ali Shan” tea that was actually grown someplace else. Still, the place a tea is grown does not in itself tell you if a tea will be good or not, so it’s just another guideline.

A Cultivar (short for “cultivated variety”) is the particular version of Camellia Sinensis that was grown to make this tea. Often the cultivar isn’t mentioned in the tea’s name, but sometimes it is the entirety of the name. Jīn Xuān (金萱), for example, is the name of a particular tea cultivar that is grown in Taiwan and Fujian, China. A particular cultivar is usually processed in the same manner, even in different locations, so if you are familiar with the way a cultivar tastes, that can give you more of an idea of the experience you will have with a tea than anything else in the name.

“Milk Oolong” is the more common name for Jin Xuan tea in the West because the flavor of that cultivar, when gently roasted by the tea manufacturer, gives off a sweet aroma with a texture similar to cream. The common name of a tea is often a translation of the Chinese cultivar name or location, but not always. In this case, Jin Xuan literally means “Golden Day Lilly”, so “Milk Oolong” is not a translation.

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So finally, our “Gao Shan Ali Shan Jin Xuan Milk Oolong” is a tea that was grown about 1000 meters on Ali Shan mountain using the Jin Xuan cultivar. This is why you can’t have a Dong Ding Ali Shan (two place names) or a Jin Xuan Tie Guan Yin (two cultivars). As always, though, the only way to really learn about a tea is to give it a try (preferably several).