Tag Archives: black tea

Kuwapani Royale 2015 Second Flush

This delightful surprise was sweet and quite chocolatey. I felt like I was drinking a fancy dark chocolate. The effect was notably drying but with a wonderfully thick mouth-feel that raised my spirits considerably after drinking (not that I was feeling particularly down to begin with, but still).

I had the good fortune to stop by Stone Leaf Teahouse on my birthday for a few pots of Chá (actually, this “good fortune” was thanks to the wise suggestion of my wife). I enjoy every chance I have to talk to the owner, John, and this time he informed us that the shop had recently acquired not one, but TWO Nepalese second flushes (the summer harvest) from a well-known garden called Kuwapani. I’ve enjoyed many Kuwapani teas before, both first and second flush, and I’m always interested to try new lots. One of the versions that John had on tap was named “Kuwapani Royale”, and with a name like that I naturally I had to have a pot.

kuwapani-royale-dryAt this point if you’re asking yourself, “but what kind of tea is this?”, what we’re looking at is a black tea (or red tea to be more accurate). But Nepal produces black tea with leaves that are more akin to Chinese cultivars than the large Assamica style so popular in Western black tea. The result is a light and very aromatic infusion modeled on the teas of the Darjeeling region of India, just over the mountains to the south. As I’ve mentioned a few times before, tea from Nepal and Darjeeling have become increasingly difficult to distinguish, and I think this is ultimately a good thing. Both regions are producing superb-quality leaf and I’m very happy to see such amazing tea coming from countries like Nepal who possess less of a tea-growing pedigree.

Second flush leaves tend toward brown with hints of green left-over from the plant’s early-season energy. Compared with first flush leaves which can be mostly green with only a hint of darkness creeping in, you can definitely see the effects of a later harvest. Just like a first flush, well-made second flush leaves should be mostly full (unbroken) and leathery with at least a few tips present in the mix. This Kuwapani has everything I’d expect in appearance: tippy, hints of green and gold, small twisted leaf sets, but I suppose I might not pick it out of a crowd. The rich taste and chocolate aroma are what really sets it apart.

kuwpani-royale-wetA good three-minute steep was needed to really draw out the flavors from my second and third infusions, which is surprising given what I know about Darjeeling and Nepal teas. My experience has shown the style to be fairly delicate. It seems that this tea holds on to its energy tightly. A nice side effect of this was that there wasn’t a hint of bitterness in the cup afterward, which is definitely not what I was expecting.

Altogether a great birthday tea (among many!) and one I’m going to be drinking again. If only all second flushes were this great.

Alishan Oolong Black

This morning’s treat was to share some waffles and a pretty unique tea with my wife as we watched the snow gently fall outside. This is one of the teas I bought from a small shop in Taipei called DigniTea, which is a family-run artisan tea company that grows (as far as I know) all of their leaves on Alishan (a rather famous mountain outside of Chiayi). I have of course written about their lovely oolongs before. Unlike their other offerings, however, this one is an “oolong black”, which seems like an unlikely descriptor, yet there it is, right on the package.



Well, ok, the package also reads “大紅帖”, or Dàhóng tiē, which to the best of my ability to translate means “big red ribbon”. So perhaps the title in Chinese is just as mysterious and unexpected.
alishan-oolong-black-leaves-dryWhile I might expect a title like “oolong black” from a Western tea bag company, where precision in naming is less important than floral descriptions, DigniTea is hardly that type of company. Their Jin Xuan and Qing Xin products are some of the finest I’ve tasted, and their packaging specifies the cultivar, year, and season of harvest. This leads me to believe that the title is not mere embellishment. So, how can a tea be made as both an oolong and also a black tea? My only guess is that the style is processed in the rigorous rolling and drying system common to high mountain oolongs but allowed to oxidize longer than any other similar Dong Ding or Alishan. In fact, I’m surprised that I haven’t heard of such a creation before.

The dry leaves are dark and rolled into small balls, already giving a unique impression. It is as though one took the dark roasted leaves of a Wuyi oolong and rolled them like a tiny Dong Ding. Infused, they produce a beautiful amber liquor reminiscent of a Sun Moon Lake black tea.

The taste as well is similar, I think, to that famous Taiwanese black tea (Hong cha, really) known variously as Sun Moon Lake, Red Jade, or Number 18. Sweet and caramel-thick, but with a slight dryness and rough mouthfeel that reminds me of a charcoal roasted oolong, this tea has a gentle but unexpected character. Indeed, every time I drink some my palate is always a little confused. Is this oolong, or is it Hong cha? The DigniTea page designates it as the latter, but this may be one of those cases where the question is simply one of experience and not semantics.

The uniqueness of this tea has earned it a special spot on my shelf over the last few years, although there is precious little remaining. But that is a good thing! The way of tea is to remind us that the present moment is fleeting, and that change exists in all things. The seeds of a flavorless teabag exist in even the finest high mountain oolong, if it is not consumed. I am fortunate, and it speaks to the quality of this tea, that my Alishan oolong black has lasted so long while retaining its delightful character. It is time to drink it and move on, giving thanks for all the joy and mystery it has brought to my life.

May your tea be warm and delightful during the frigid winter snows. And may your mind find peace in the cup.



Hong Cha? No, I wanted Black Tea

Black tea. This can be a misleading term. During my recent visit to Tea Drunk in NYC I really enjoyed that they wrote this little gem on their menu:

RED TEA 紅茶: known as black tea by rest of the world for reasons we do not understand

When working at the teahouse, this was one of most frequent ways I found that people got confused. They would ask for a “red tea”, but not really have any idea what that was, or they would order a Chinese black tea and then ask for something else because it was too light a flavor.

Suffice to say that this topic needs a little clarification.

All of these are Black Tea

All of these are Black Tea

Let’s start with the basics. As you all probably know from reading these posts, the six categories of tea mainly differ by oxidation, but each category is so broad that it really does a disservice to group them all together. “Oolong”, for example. The kind of oolong you get in a Chinese restaurant is very different from a Yan Cha, which in turn is an extremely different experience from a High Mountain Dong Ding. It’s nearly impossible to pin down the general qualities of Hei Cha, and for people who like “green tea”, do you mean you like the bright salty energy of a Kabusecha or the sweet buttery notes of a Bi Lo Chun? Black tea is no different. And as Tea Drunk’s menu so clearly explains, this heavily oxidized category is actually called “Red Tea” (Hong Cha) in China.

The main difference you’ll find is between black tea made in China or Taiwan (let’s call this “Chinese” style), black tea made in Darjeeling or Nepal (I generally call this “Darjeeling”), and black tea made in Assam, Sri Lanka, Kenya, or basically anywhere else (let’s call this “Assam”).

chinese-black-teaAlthough all tea production began in China, their concept of black tea is quite a long way from what most westerners are used to. Skillfully made Hong Cha is rich and malty, sweet without any additives. Notes of caramel and chocolate can be found in the aromas of black tea made in Yunnan, Anhui, or the famous Sun Moon Lake region of Taiwan. The color of the liquor is usually a deep ruddy red with a bit of a golden hue and yet clear enough to see the bottom of your cup through the broth. That’s certainly nothing like what you get in a supermarket teabag. In fact, the leaves themselves are sometimes not black at all, but can be gold and silver. There’s many legends surrounding the separation within this category, but I tend to believe that distance and money were the major contributing factors to the development of “English-style tea”.

The English quickly became addicted to tea as it filtered in from their trade ships and mysterious Chinese ports. The terminology and categorization problems began right there since it was difficult for well-translated tea processing information to make its way to the tea merchants of London, not to mention the secrecy and tales of the Chinese tea producers. Many of these stories persist even today, like the legend of “monkey picked oolong” and the idea that Puer is some sort of foul health tonic.

assam-black-teaBy the time they managed to grow tea in the Indian colonies, the British were beginning to create their own tea culture: one based on the same leaves, but very different concepts around processing and steeping. Theirs was a culture that to prized the energizing quality of tea over nuance. Tea making involves a lot of manual labor and as time progressed Indian and British tea growers increased their production by sacrificing quality to make the highest quantity possible. This led to the popularization of BOP (Broken Orange Pekoe) and CTC (Crush Tear Curl) and, eventually, the humble tea bag. These teas were nothing like their forebears, infusing so quickly and with so little aroma that it was necessary to brew them quite strong and then add milk, sugar, or citrus to make them palatable. The comparison of a Hong Cha to these inky black infusions is not unlike the difference between artisan coffee and what you’ll find in a city diner.

Of course, not all black tea produced in Indian soil is low grade, just the huge quantities that made it to the English and Indian citizenry in the first hundred years of its production. Many gardens in Assam and Nilgiri (as well as later production in Sri Lanka) care deeply for their leaves and can make a delicious full-leaf SFTFGOP that is enjoyed by many world-wide. As labor prices have risen, the production of low-grade tea for bags has moved to Africa, but the product is nearly the same. In the lofty gardens of Darjeeling (and neighboring Nepal), however, a truly unique tea was being created.

darjeeling-black-teaDarjeeling tea has some of the characteristics of a red wine. In a well-made cup you can taste raisins and dates, plums and chocolate. If brewed well, there’s no hint of bitterness, and if freshly picked the energy is unparalleled. The first and second harvest (or “flush”) of Darjeelings command a high price indeed, from antiquity until modern day, and even today it’s common for companies to use the name just to make broken leaf tea bags sell better.

What all this should tell you is that when buying an unfamiliar “black tea”, be sure to do some research to know what you’re getting. And if you’re surprised by the taste, experiment with how you make it. Despite the size of the leaves or the pedigree, any tea can be a delicious experience if skillfully prepared, but it might not be what you’re expecting!

The little gold sample pack

Don’t write off the sample pack! This beautiful little golden pouch contains one of the most smooth examples of a black tea I’ve ever tasted. Mellow, round, and with some sweetness to the taste that reminds me of Qi Men hong cha or Bailin Gongfu.

This tea is a little bit of a mystery. Supposedly it is a Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong from the Wuyi Shan area, but I can’t be sure. The label reads (I think): 野生红茶, which is “Wild Red Tea”, but that could just be a generic description. Often the labels on sample packets are mass-produced for a tea manufacturer and aren’t indicative of what lies inside. Remember that “Red” tea in China is what we call “Black” tea in the West. The “Wild” part doesn’t say much. It could refer to tea harvested from old-growth tea trees or tea grown from seed rather than cuttings, but the taste is so clean that I wonder about that. Usually such teas have a roughness to their character. Also, in my experience it’s rare to find wild leaves used for hong cha (black tea). Oolong, puer, and white tea use wild leaves much more often, and this certainly isn’t Mao Cha.

If I had to guess and I was sure that the tea originated from the Wuyi area, I’d say that this is some hong cha unique to that region (Fujian / Guandong) that doesn’t have a very prestigious name outside its own province. Such gems exist all over tea growing countries. Whatever tea it is, though, I’m very happy to have had a chance to taste it!

I didn’t end up with a great many infusions (only 3) from the dark black twisted leaves, but they were a perfect gift on a long day spent under the looming specter of jet lag. I will thank the gods of tea for proving once again the mystery of this beautiful plant.

Update: It is indeed Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong, from the wonderful Stone Leaf Teahouse.