Monthly Archives: April 2014

Grampa Style

I’ve been meaning to write a post about infusing tea Grampa Style for several months now. It so happens that Floating Leaves beat me to it. Ah, but it’s too good to pass up! I think that every new full-leaf tea drinker should learn about this technique because it’s so eminently useful.

The term was coined by MarshalN as a way to refer to the steeping technique used by a huge percentage of the population of China to make their every-day tea. Really huge. You see it all over the place in the tea belt, and if you visit teahouses in Sichuan, Yunnan, or as far east as Anhui it’s likely that you’ll be served green tea this way as well. It’s how I brewed traveling tea during my trips through Asia and I’ve used it extensively in many other trips since.

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The basic idea is to put a few leaves directly into a cup and pour on some hot water, straining the resulting infusion through your teeth as you sip. The brew will get stronger as it rests, so you add more hot water periodically until there’s no flavor left (if you’re in China, just walk up to any shop or dumpling stand and ask for Kāishuǐ, 开水, or boiled water). Using a small thermos as your cup works really well if you’re moving around.

The key to success with this method (as becomes obvious very quickly) is to use very few leaves. Probably 2 grams of leaf where you’d normally use 4 or 6. Rolled oolongs make this particularly confusing, because it looks like you just put in a tiny amount of tea, but remember that as the leaves unfurl, they can get quite large. By using a small amount of leaf, you prevent the tea from becoming too strong before you can drink it. Of course, you want to get flavor from the infusion as well, so you don’t want to use too few (remember my tea mantra: Experiment!).

Photo Apr 24, 1 22 34 PMAnother important factor is to use medium to large leaf tea. Very small or broken leaves, like Sencha or most lower-grade black tea will make it very difficult to sip the infusion without slurping up a mouthful of plant matter. Rolled oolongs and full leaf green tea usually work very well with this method. I’ve successfully brewed large-leaf black tea using Grampa style as well.

It’s also worth mentioning that making tea like this will not bring out the finer flavors of any high grade tea. There’s too little control to find the balance of time and temperature that can be crucial for some leaves. That’s why I usually use this technique for traveling: it’s easy and requires no equipment other than a cup, mug, or thermos.

Photo Apr 18, 5 33 04 PMI think that the simplicity and convenience of Grampa style can make the world a more tea-accessible place. It’s economical (since it uses less tea) and can lower the bar when introducing others to brewing loose-leaf tea (since it requires fewer tools). Of course, there’s a time for the practice of meditatively steeping a pot, and listening to the waterfall flowing from a gaiwan, but when out in the world that time isn’t always upon us. Those are the moments for infusing tea Grampa style.

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.