It was a Saturday, as the title suggests. Saturday, March 21, to be precise. It was a really shitty Saturday, in other words.

The work shift was going frustratingly poorly. My student loan sharks announced they were tripling my monthly payment. And finally . . . a panic attack was looming. Not sure how that got there.

Amidst the chaos, I received a text from Misty Peak Teas’ Nick, informing me that there was a package waiting for me at Tea Bar. I kind of knew what it was, but it gave me something to look forward to. After the work shift, I made the trip out to NE Portland, sat myself at the bar like a regular, and ordered a Lapsang latte. My usual.

The barista handed off said Misty Peak mystery package. It was a giant bag of sheng pu-erh. That created an instant “happy”.

Misty Peak Teas

As I was about to nurse my latte, mood improved, I received a Facebook message. It was from someone I rarely heard from, a dude from my gaming circles. For those who haven’t figured it out, yet, I’m a bit of a geek. Occasionally, I’m easily roped into roleplaying and board game events. However, I’m what you would call a “casual”, at best. But I digress . . .

Said dude chimed in with, “Friday Afternoon Tea wants to meet you personally. She is at Gamestorm.”

My first thought was, “What’s a Gamestorm?”

He informed me that there was a gaming convention happening in Vancouver, WA. I knew of Friday Afternoon. I reviewed several of their teas when I still contributed to Teaviews. I remembered being particularly fond of their Snow Day blend.

I said to my gaming pal, “I can be there in twenty.”

It was the truth, I was in N.E. Portland, a mere skip across the river to Vancouver. He was a bit surprised at my impromptu decision, and so was I. But why not?! Up until now, my day had been shite. A little adventure wouldn’t hurt. (Much.) So, off I went to a gaming convention, to meet a tea blender op I’d never seen before.

When I got there, said friend met me at the front and directed me back to the vendor room. Toward the back was a woman with multicolored hair, decked out various pieces of geek flare (including Pac-Man earrings), chatting with other patrons. She was like a cross between Tank Girl, Kate Winslet a la Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Pinki-Pie.

Pinkie Pie

In a word, “Adorkable”.

She was the patroness of Friday Afternoon Tea, and her actual name . . . was Friday. I was not expecting that, at all. Apparently, sci-fi conventions, gaming events and other geek ephemera were her bread-and-butter; the demographic she catered to. That and her blends reflected this. She had blends themed after Harry Potter, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, and so on.

We got along fine.

I arrived just as she was closing up her booth for the day. She easily suckered me into buying a blend dubbed, “Setting Things on Fire” – one of her “Cylons for Breakfast” line of teas. It was a fusion of cooked pu-erh, Ceylon, and Assam – with a little bit of Lapsang Souchong sprinkled in for good measure. It smelled divine, had a kickass name . . . sold, to the gentleman with poor impulse control.

Friday Afternoon

We talked about various things under the geek umbrella, as we walked her daughter – dubbed TeaGirl – to the video gaming room. Before I knew it, two hours had passed. Not quite sure how that happened. She and her young ‘un called it a night, and I (somehow) got roped into a LAN game of Artemis with various other friends of mine at the con.

Before she left, though, she said, “You do know we’re best friends now, right?”

I was too befuddled to answer eloquently.

The next day, I broke in a mug of Setting Things on Fire. (That sentence sounded far less silly in my head.)

Setting Things on Fire, Loose

This was an incredibly even blend. What I mean by that is, all the elements fused well together. They all seemed as if they belonged together. The smaller cut Ceylon and Assam leaf pieces worked well with the more spindly pu-erh strands. The color palette ranged from tippy beige to chocolate brown. Nothing seemed out of place.

That even-ness carried over in the scent – strong contributions of malt, earth, smoke and . . . something fruity that I couldn’t quite place. Maybe I mistook the floral bend of the Ceylon for fruit. Stranger things have happened.

For brewing, I went with a typical black tea approach – 1 tablespoon of leaves for a 12oz. cup, steeped for four minutes in boiling water. Usually, I do three, but for something called “Setting Things on Fire”, I thought an extra minute would be fine.

Setting Things on Fire Brewed

The liquor brewed cedar brown with an alternating burly and sweet aroma. Crimson lined the edge of the soup, while it transitioned into a pool of dark brown. As even a transition in color as I would expect from such a blend. What shocked me was the taste. Contrary to the burly bits in the blend, this was a deceptively smooth operator, starting off with a floral front, ushering in a hint of malt, segueing (or even Segwaying) in a dash of smoke, and ending with a sensation of napping on a forest floor. Very deceptive . . . like a Cylon.

The weekend went from shit to shine.

In 2009, I met an extraordinary man. A legend, really.

smith

He had just opened his newest operation, Steven Smith Teamaker – aptly named after himself. He had reason for such bravado, having co-founded two of the largest tea companies ever. Stash Tea Company and Tazo (pre-Starbucks) were his brainchildren. The man had earned his stripes. And with Smith Tea, he hoped to bring the simple touch of small batch blending back to the forefront.

And – hoo-boy – did he?!

With his wife, Kim DeMent, and a dedicated team, Smith became a recognizable and reliable brand for quality. Much like the man himself. When I first met him, he presided over a tea tasting when I brought friends to the new brick-‘n-mortar Smith HQ. He was humble, humorous, and had the best head of hair of any teaman I’d met, yet.

At the time, my tea discovery was still in its infancy. But as my knowledge grew, I found myself returning to the shop time and again. On a few occasions, as I sat there minding my own business, nursing a pot, he would find time to sit with me and talk. He even let me in on some of the secrets a-brewin’ in their Wonka-esque workshop.

smith hq

A particular favorite of mine was their range of barrel-aged teas. I was one of the first to sample their Methode Noir – a pinot barrel-aged black – as well as one of the first purchasers of their bourbon Assam. Naturally, I wrote about both.

If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think my odd and tangential tea journey would’ve progressed the way it did. I don’t think he was fully aware of this, but he was the reason I started honing my research regarding tea estates and gardens.

I guess one could say if it weren’t for him, his shop, the tea philosophy he cultivated, Steep Stories wouldn’t be what it is today. To date, I think I’ve done more blogs on Smith Tea than I have any other outfit. And there’s a reason for that. Or at least, there was.

On Monday, March 23rd, 2015, Steve Smith succumbed to liver cancer. I found the news out secondhand through a former employee of the company. Naturally, I was shocked. Mouth agape-type shocked, even. My gut reaction, though, was to brew something – anything. Then it occurred to me . . .

I still had some rum barrel-aged white tea Team Smith had produced.

loose

Months back, I negotiated my way to a sample of the stuff, but I never dipped into it. What better time than this? I broke out the Bai Mu Dan leaves, and gave ‘em a good whiff. The aroma was sweet, slightly forest-like, and possessing an undercurrent of – well – rum. Six months of aging will do that to a tea.

The liquor brewed light yellow, giving off a sweet, humble aroma. On sip, it was soft, equally sweet and lingering. Probably the most poetic of the barrel-aged teas they’d released to date. It was the perfect tea to have as a memory to a modern shaman

Every Tuesday, I do cheesy tea haikus. Steve, this haiku’s for you.

haiku

Rest in teas, o’ Peppermint Prince.

Per the Oregonian article on Steve’s passing, his family suggests that those who wish to honor him donate to Mercy Corps’ School Education Retention Program, which aims to help students finish high school in Assam, India.

Full circle, man.

circle

Let me explain.

About a year and a half ago, I did a write-up on Russian grown tea, specifically a black tea from the Krasnodarskiy brand. My verdict was, “Eh.” However, I didn’t disregard the Dagomys region of Krasnodar completely. According to some sources, the tea gardens in the region were stepping up their quality. Part of that was because of last year’s Winter Olympics.

Fast-forward to December of 2014, Natasha Nesic (formerly The Snooty Tea Person) informed me of an online tea company based in the U.K. called What-Cha. Among their many, eclectic wares were “collections” highlighting specific growing regions around the world – India, Nepal, Malawi, Europe (!!!), and . . . Russia.

First thing I notice were the Russian non-black tea collections. That was new. When did they start experimenting with anything but black tea?! I got in touch with the company head – Alistair Rea – to acquire some. And he dropped the biggest bombshell I ever swallowed.

His inspiration for carrying Russian grown tea was because of the blog I wrote on the subject. He even wrote about his search HERE. So, to summarize: I wrote a blog on Russian tea, which in turn inspired someone to carry said tea, and then I approached said company to acquire said tea . . . to write a blog about it.

Like I said . . .  full circle, man.

Of the samples he sent, there were six green teas to sip.

Russian roulette

They hailed from four different tea estates in the region – Solohaul, Dagomys, Matsesta, and Host. There wasn’t much information on any of them, aside from mentions on Steepster (pertaining to What-Cha). I wondered how best to dig into them. One at a time? Side-by-side? Nah . . . all at once! A veritable game of Russian green tea roulette. Six teas; one tasting session.

 

Krasnodar Solohaul Tea Estate Green Tea

Solohaul

 

Appearance/Aroma: The leaves were large, twisted and dark green. The fragrance they gave off was all wintergreen and forest floor – minty, slightly earthy and grassy.

Brewed: The liquor was bright yellow-gold with a faint aroma of melons, more of a likeness to a bold white tea than a green. The flavor was both buttery and fruity with a slight, mellow sweetness on the back.

Verdict: Definitely a hit. An almost-perfect green tea on delivery.

 

Krasnodar Premium Dagomys Tea Estate Green Tea

Dagomys Premium

Appearance/Aroma: The leaves were green and brown, rolled tightly to the likeness of twigs and stems. They smelled like straight juniper berries, in that “gin and tonic” sort of way.

Brewed: The liquor brewed light green with a very . . . uh . . . green tea aroma. It reminded me of a mid-grade Darjeeling green – slightly grassy, but not grapy. There really isn’t much to say about it other than that.

Verdict: A near-hit, chamber misfire. It was okay, but nothing memorable.

 

Krasnodar Large Leaf Dagomys Tea Estate Green Tea

Dagomys Large Leaf

Appearance/Aroma: Contrary to what the name implied, the leaves were smaller cut, conically rolled – very similar to a Chinese Bi Luo Chun, only a more vibrant green color. The aroma was earthy, floral, and vaguely citrus.

Brewed: The liquor brewed fairly dark. Well, by dark I mean light amber. So, dark for a green tea. The steam smelled of sage growing on a cliff side – very oolong-y. On sip, grass hit the tongue first, followed by this burly, floral note, and chased by a nice, wilderness-y finish.

Verdict: A hit. Bullet would’ve gone clean through. A very good, serviceable green.

 

Krasnodar ‘Since 1947’ Matsesta Tea Estate Green Tea

1947 Matsesta

Appearance/Aroma: This was a straight-up Long Jing (Dragonwell) on appearance and smell. The leaves were medium-green, plank flat, and a decent length with an alternating grassy and winy aroma.

Brewed: The liquor brewed bright, almost “radioactive sencha” green with an herbal salad-like aroma. There was a spiciness to the smell that reminded me a little of sage or oregano. On taste, it reminded me of a Chunmee – a lower-grade Chinese green. Not un-drinkable but definitely far too grassy for my palate.

Verdict: Empty chamber. Way too grassy a green.

 

Krasnodar ‘VIP’ Matsesta Tea Esate Green Tea

Matsesta VIP

Appearance/Aroma: The leaves were very small, likely given a BOP (broken orange pekoe) cut, but gave off an aroma of sweetened nuts and barley powder.

Brewed: The liquor brewed an even, medium green with a strange scent of sunflower seeds. I wasn’t expecting that. On taste . . . oh my, yum. Straight almond awesomeness. It ended with a bit of a grassy finish, but it was still lathered in nutty goodness. So nuts! (Badam-bum.)

Verdict: Boom. Headshot. Straight between the eyes. A very satisfying green tea.

 

Host Estate Green Tea

host

Appearance/Aroma: These were the wildest looking of all the Russian green teas, like they were plucked from feral trees or something. Sure they looked picked and rolled, but there seemed something natural about the process. The aroma they gave off was equally “wild” – herbaceous and floral, almost like pre-processed pu-erh maocha.

Brewed: The liquor was a vibrant, lively green with a spry, fruity aroma. The taste just about kicked my head back with “WOW!” I couldn’t tell you what fruit or melon the taste was indicative of, but I was floored by it. It was like a Long Jing paired off with a biodynamic Indian green and came back with a halo-adorned offspring. Christ on a unicycle, this was perfect!

Verdict: I’m dead. Turn me over. I’m done. So wonderful.

In summary, if this had been an actual game of Russian roulette, four chambers would’ve been loaded, two bullets would’ve missed, two would’ve grazed and/or wounded me . . . and I would’ve died twice. A morbid metaphor to end on, but totally applicable.

The clear winner was the Host tea estate. Whatever they’re doing, they can keep on doing it. From what I witnessed, they were also experimenting with yellow tea and oolong tea styles. Good on ‘em. All in all, happy with the results. Russian tea has come a long way in such a short time.

Roulette 2

morpheus

It’s an honest question.

For years, I was taught that, sure, a young sheng (raw) pu-erh could be good, but it had yet to reach its full potential. After all, pu-erh was meant to be aged – to mature over time. Particularly the raw variety. However, I’m starting to rethink my stance on that. Sometimes, just sometimes, a younger, just-plucked, newly-pressed pu-erh can stand up against its older beengcha brethren.

Two months ago, I received a text from Nick “Misty Peak Teas” Lozito. He had just returned from a sourcing trip to Mount Yiwu, Yunnan province, China, where his farming contact was. Nick direct sourced from one farmer, and one farmer only. All the products he carried were from one dude. I covered his outfit a few months ago. But I digress . . .

Nick practically said, “Dude! You’ve gotta try this autumn flush I got. It’s amazing.”

He was too busy to get together that week, what with a newborn son and all, but he dropped some off at Tea Bar – the local outfit that carried his sheng to serve. I made the trip out to North Portland to try it. And, boy, he wasn’t kidding.

tea bar

I wasn’t used to judging pu-erhs by their recent seasonal plucks. Usually, that was Darjeeling territory. Pu-erh is generally judged by the year it was plucked/pressed, not the month. But there was a definite difference between the spring 2014 Yiwu pu-erh and the autumn. I just needed to judge for myself a bit more thoroughly.

In the meantime, Misty Peak Teas was carving out a niche for itself in the online community. I was hearing rumblings about how good the stuff was from other fellow bloggers. Their wares were even receiving accolades on Steepster. To date, the 2014 cake was the highest rated pu-erh on the site. Impressive, given the competition.

Steepster

Alas, life got in the way, and I didn’t follow up with Nick for a more thorough tasting until . . . well . . . yesterday [at the time of this writing]. He cut out a section of his day in which to entertain my urge to drink more of the autumn tea.

When I pulled up to “Misty Peak HQ”, I was told to come around to the back. There he was on a green blanket, feeding his four-month-old, Vincenzo. It was far too adorable a sight not to snap.

nick and son

Then we got to drinking.

First, as a palate starter, Nick broke out a cake of his 2005. It was the one year from that farm I hadn’t tried yet. The leaves were large and lovely.

beeng

Brewed gongfu, the liquor was a deep brass, and I tasted straight stone fruit, earth, and ancient civilization. Is that a taste? Well, it is now.

2005

I was in a daze, and we had only just begun.

Next up, he offered up the autumn 2014 side-by-side with the spring.

2014s side by side

The spring pluck was fruitier, but the autumn was somehow sweeter – more mature. On a blind test, I couldn’t tell them apart, but the difference in maturity was there, if subtle. The autumn was just a shy bit better. It was like comparing two pieces of cheesecake based upon how many strawberries were topped on ‘em.

Further down the line, we compared two 2012s, binged on some pu-erh that’d been left outdoors to cure. (For the heck of it.) Mizuba Tea’s Lauren Danson also stopped by to join in the festivities for a quick minute or three. What was initially intended as, maybe, an hour’s tasting session turned into three.

After I-dunno-how-many cups of 2005, 2012, and 2014 teas, I was good and basted. Feeling the Universe and s**t. But it was high time to retire. Before I left, though, Nick brought out a really interesting sight to show off. A giant ball of pu-erh. No seriously.

big balls

Look at that thing. Apparently, the farmer plucked it the same month Nick’s son was born, and pressed the ball to the newborn’s exact weight. I held it. The sucker weighed about seven pounds – and change!

As I made my farewells, I made it a point to acquire a cake of the autumn 2014.

autmn 2014 beemg

Oh yeah . . . I was supposed to be devoting this entry to making a case for young pu-erh. Look, it’s a subjective thing. If you prefer the aged stuff, you’ll likely stick to the aged stuff. Young pu-erh tastes young. It’s like a green tea with lofty aspirations, or Luke Skywalker before raging against the second Death Star. All I wanted to show was, a great time could be had with the new as well as the old. And the less stuffy you are about either, the better.

Because . . . GIANT PU-ERH BALLS ARE AWESOME!

That is all.

The late Bob Ross used to close his show with the line, “There are no mistakes, only happy accidents.”

bobross

His philosophy – if it can be called that – holds true for a lot of things. Oolong, for starters, was a happy accident. As legend has it, the style came about because a leaf picker fell asleep, allowing the leaves to partially oxidize. Taiwanese aged oolong was a happy accident. Someone once thought, “Hey, why don’t we sit on this back stock of tea for a few years and see what happens.” Lapsang Souchong . . . well . . . I think I’ve covered that subject aplenty.

Point being, while the Ross-ite “happy accident” logic doesn’t hold true for all things, it does for a lot of things, especially in the tea world. I just never thought I would run into one in my pursuit of weird teas. This one practically fell into my lap.

I received an e-mail from Eco-Cha, a relatively new outfit. The name “Eco-Cha” in Chinese literally translates to, “A Sip of Tea”. The company was the brainchild of Andy Kincart, Tom Lin and Nick Fothergill – all of whom had lived in Taiwan for a number of years. Advisory support was provided by Tony and Lisa Lin, renowned proponents of Taiwanese tea culture. Their mission was simple, source and sell Taiwanese oolong tea directly to the consumer.

Occasionally, however, they sourced the odd black tea or two. One in particular hailed from the Shan Lin Xi district in Nantou county, Taiwan – a relatively high altitude tea growing region. The name Shan Lin Xi translated to “Pine Forest Stream”, and was also home to the famous oolong of the same name. Many farmers in the region have been at the tea growing game for several decades . . . including this guy.

Image mooched from Eco-Cha.

Image mooched from Eco-Cha.

(I have no clue who he is.)

In winter of 2012, after tea leaves had been plucked and fried, they were brought indoors to oxidize. They were stored on multiple racks, one on top of the other. The tea master had inadvertently forgotten to check the top rack. (It was above eye level.) He didn’t realize this until the next day, after the leaves had undergone roughly 75% oxidation. The typical Shan Lin Xi oolong oxidation level is about 30%.

Instead of tossing the entire batch, the tea master adapted his rolling techniques to suit these accidental leaves. The result was a unique beast in the tea world often referred to as a “red oolong”. While it was still an oolong by technique, the mostly-oxidized profile gave it a black tea (or “red tea”) character. I had sampled red oolongs before, but those had been intentional. This was my first taste of a happy accident.

loose leaf

The leaves looked like a darker-roast, heavier oxidized version of almost every Taiwanese oolong I’ve ever come across. They were ball-fisted in appearance, and the color spectrum ran from forest green to cherry wood red. What was different, though, was that the actual leaf-rolling appeared incomplete. They weren’t as tightly rolled as others I’d come across before. As for fragrance, I was more reminded of other Taiwanese black teas – due to the sweeter aroma – but there was something different at play, too. A floral underpinning was also present amidst the sweetness.

Eco-Cha surprised me with some of their brewing recommendations. Aside from the usual gongfu (multiple short infusions) brewing instructions, they also recommended brewing this grandpa-style – putting leaves in a mug and pouring hot water over it. That gave me a grin . . . so, I did it both ways.

Brewed gongfu-style, the liquor color on each infusion gradually grew darker.

gong fu

It started off pale, like a typical Taiwanese oolong, then grew slightly more crimson by the second, and a deep bronze by the third. Each steep had an aroma of sweetened nuts and a hint of fruit. That also showed up in the taste, revealing a complex combination of flavors and sensations. Like an oolong with darker – if mintier – aspirations

Grandpa-style, though . . . wow . . .

grandpa style

I didn’t have a 16oz. mug (that was clean) for taste-testing, so I utilized a 12oz. one. Unfortunately (and awesomely!), I kept the leaf ratio the same – roughly 2 teaspoons. The results were sheer brilliance – a bold, rust red-colored liquor with leaves at the bottom beckoning to surface. The aroma was like that of a Ruby 18; woody, minty, sweet, and slightly malty. Some astringency showed up the further down I sipped, but it helped bring a spry note to the sweeter proceedings. The further I sipped, the more it was like I was sipping cherry-filled chocolates that’d been left in the sun.

By the end of this Taiwanese double-fisting, I realized I was extremely wired. Not just any wired, but “Rainbow Fuzzy Buddha”-wired. Doesn’t make sense? Well, it didn’t to me, either. I hadn’t intended to have that much of this black tea in one sitting. Nor did I plan on re-steeping both helpings. My excuse? Another photograph.

both preps

Flimsy, I know.

Oh well, like this tea, the resulting warm fuzzy feeling was just a happy accident.

Have I ever mentioned that I’m sensitive to caffeine? Like “Deanna Troi” sensitive.

Derpanna Troi

Upon my first exposure to yaupon holly – yerba mate’s sweeter, ‘Merican cousin – I hadn’t prepared for the absolute caffeine zing! it imparted. It took three melatonin pills just to slow my heart rate enough to sleep that night. For a person whose idea of a morning pick-me-up is a second flush Darjeeling, that caffeine wallop was a bit much. I never thought I’d need something that strong again. Until . . .

Enter Lou Thomann.

I actually met Lou back in 2013 at my first World Tea Expo, during the first meeting of U.S. tea growers. We were formally introduced, but I had no idea what his particular crop was. In fact, I mistook him for a Hawaiian tea grower, which took an awful lot of mental talent (on my part) to do, considering he hailed from Savannah, GA. And sounded like it.

Image mooched from Connect Savannah.

Image mooched from Connect Savannah.

His works caught my eye some months later when I saw a picture posted by Jason McDonald (of The Great Mississippi Company). In said pic, he was swigging a particularly dark brew, but it wasn’t a typical tea. No, it was an herbal infusion – one I’d been researching for years. Freakin’ yaupon holly.

I didn’t know what Thomann’s plans were with the caffeinated herb, but I kept an eye on his Instagram for progress. Over the last decade, he had made the acquaintance of one George Ryan, an ex-chef/salesman. George wanted to explore sales on the food and beverage side, whereas Lou had aspirations of cultivating yaupon holly into some sort of ready-made product. From various caffeine-fueled meetings, ASI Tea was born.

Image mooched from DrinkAsi.com. Lou on the right, George on the left.

Image mooched from DrinkAsi.com. Lou on the right, George on the left.

Their mission statement was simple. The RTD (ready-to-drink) market was strong in the U.S., particularly in the South. Yaupon holly was native to the South. Sweet tea was the gasoline of choice. Energy drinks were big with the younger demographic. Why not create yaupon blends for the ready-to-drink market, and gear them to the sweet tea trade as well?

Originally, cultivating yaupon for a loose leaf product was a secondary consideration. But as the business model grew (and with interest rising among snobs like me), they decided to make a stab at a loose yaupon offering.

Before their wares, I hadn’t tried yaupon holly in its roasted form. I was hesitant at first because I feared there would be some loss of the herb’s natural sweetness. That dread was assuaged when I received both roasted yaupons. Yes . . . both.

I received two versions of this “tea”.

One came in a canister and contained a dustier cut, wrapped in do-it-yourself, stringed filter bags. Lou had informed me that they were experimenting with different leaf cuts. They wondered if a smaller leaf cut would yield a greater caffeine delivery.

yaupon bag

When I first opened the canister, it was like a plume of leaf smoke pummeled my face. I coughed through the laughter. It was as if a cannon had fired off at close range in front of me.

dust face

The plumage sure smelled good, though. I was reminded of a charcoal-roasted oolong – not as deep as a Da Hong Pao, but resembling a Ti Kwan Yin. Never thought I’d say that about an herb.

When I told this story to Lou, he joked, “Er, consider that our yaupon matcha.”

That garnered a chuckle or five.

I didn’t have time to give it a formal treatment when I first got it. However, I chose to make that my to-go beverage for work. One night that week, I only managed about four hours of sleep – due to anxiety – and needed something strong for the morning. I took one of the filter bags, plopped it into my travel mug, poured hot water over it, and left.

At first sip, my pupils dilated. Colors sharpened. My teeth gritted. Nostrils flared. Caffeine hit me like a charging rhino high on barbiturates. I wove through traffic, cursed at slow Subarus, and made it to work in record time. I might as well have had hyperdrives on my dainty little Ford Focus.

Oh yeah, and it tasted good – deceptively smooth and toasty. Three infusions lasted me the entire day. I barged through my work shift – chest flexed. Full disclosure: I lived on this for about a week.

Whee!

The second version was the standard fannings leaf cut. Some stems were present among the broken leaves, and the color palate ranged from dark green to brown. It smelled just like the dust-cut, but a bit sweeter on the nose than the smaller leaf bits. There was also a stronger, roastier and herbaceous presence to the aroma.

yaupon loose

For brewing, I used about a teaspoon of leaves and a 6oz. steeper mug filled to the brim with boiled water. For timing the infusion, I simply played a four-minute song (Iris’s The Harder We Fight It) to completion. Y’know, to get even further pumped.

After steeping, pouring this out was a chore. The lip on my steeper cup was too wide, and leaf particles came out with the water. Like, a lot of leaf particles. I worried there’d be swimmy, leafy bits in the brew. Luckily, all the herb pieces simply settled at the bottom of the brown-green liquor.

yaupon brewed

The taste was sweet, smoky, and slightly floral with a small hint of astringency on the end. And the caffeine woosh! hit almost immediately, taking the fast lane for my forehead. The aftertaste was like a bearskin rug on my tongue, just this numbing, warm creaminess that lingered with a trace of burnt wood.

I’m conflicted about which way I prefer yaupon prepared. I really liked the greener, un-roasted version, but there was certainly a depth of character to the roast. Both were an instant jolt of caffeine, which is nice on those difficult mornings. The roasted just kicked me in the teeth harder – southern-style. For not only did it make me feel like I could grab life by the balls after drinking it, but there was also a sense I could walk away from any explosion.

boom!

Teacup in hand.

Pinky out.

This all started with a forum topic. Tea Trade’s resident Smiling Frenchman – Xavier (of the Teaconomics blog) – had posted a discussion starter. It was aptly titled: “The First Scottish Tea is White and Smoky

That immediately held my attention. In the discussion, Xavier posted a link to an article about a new outfit dubbed The Wee Tea Company, who had set up their own tea garden. In Scotland! Not only that, but they had also brokered an exclusive deal with the British high-end store – Fortnum & Mason. The asking price? £35 for 15g. That’s, like, $53 in ‘Merican money.

To their credit, though, the two teas they were producing were quite special. One was a regular white tea, while the other was a smoked white tea. Yes, smoked! Like a Lapsang Souchong, but instead of using pinewood, they used beech trees.

The garden itself was called the Dalreoch Tea Estate (aka. The Wee Tea Plantation).

Banner mooched from The Wee Tea Plantation Facebook page

Banner mooched from The Wee Tea Plantation Facebook page

“Dalreoch” loosely translated to “the field of the King” in Scots-Gaelic. Said garden was nestled in the Strathbraan valley at the foot of the Scottish Highlands, just outside of the small town of Amulree in Perth & Kinross County. The garden was originally a test plot purchased by one Tam O’Braan geared toward the development of degradable polymers for agricultural use. Later, however, he teamed up with Derek Walker and Jamie Russell of The Wee Tea Company (based in Fife) to start a tea garden.

Image mooched from The Wee Tea Plantation Facebook page.

Image mooched from The Wee Tea Plantation Facebook page.

They broke ground in 2012 with roughly 2,000 tea plants to start. While Scottish weather was temperamental at best, the lads developed clever ways to help the plants thrive. The aforementioned polymers helped the soil retain moisture, and kept pests from feeding on the young plants. As the tea bushes matured, they were then covered in UV-protective plastic tubes to restrict photosynthesis. During the harsher winter months, the plants were fully covered to prevent die-off. In 2014 – just a little over two years – they plucked their first leaves, for the first ever Scottish white tea.

Scottish white tea

The question wasn’t whether or not I wanted it, but how I could bloody well get a hold of it. Neither The Wee Tea Company or Fortnum & Mason delivered to the U.S. I wasn’t worried about the money, per se. I would’ve sold a kidney to scrounge up the cash, if I had to.

I did the only thing I could do. I played the ol’ “tea blogger” card and hoped for the best. That . . . went about as well as expected.

scottish mafia

After all, I was small-time compared to all the other outlets that were covering the garden – STiR Tea & Coffee, The Daily Mail. Hell, even The BBC.

My only answer was to utilize some of my (albeit few) UK contacts and see if they could make the purchase on my behalf. In the interim, I counted pennies. Unfortunately, that was taking far longer to do than I thought. My kidney was dreading my eventual decision.

A savior appeared in the most unlikely of places. For about eight years, now, I had a penpal. We’ll call her “Mistress G”. She was a tea drinker, but not one of my regular tea contacts. I’d never met her in person. Mistress G just happened to be residing in the U.K. In a passing conversation, I told her about my interest in the Dalreoch smoked white tea.

She said, “Oh, I can get that for you.”

I replied with, “There’s no way I can pay you back for that.”

She countered with, “Don’t worry about it, consider it a gift.”

I had my very own mysterious, tea-swigging, philanthropic Carmen Sandiego.

carmen sandiego iced tea

The package arrived in record time, a week later. In it, she also included a tin of chocolate pearl cookies, handmade Earl Grey shortbread from Edinburgh, and a tea napkin! All from Fortnum & Mason. My eyes glazed over.

gift

After making short work of the Earl Grey shortbread, I bee-lined to the tea tins.

side by side

Scottish White on the left; Smoked Scottish White on the right.

 

The regular Scottish white tea had beautiful young, whole leaves and stems with a bouquet of colors ranging from green to brown. The aroma they gave off was straight forest and mint, with a dash of earth. It reminded me of a Yunnan-grown Moonlight white. Yue Guang Bai was a very burly, salt-of-the-earth sorta white on first impression; so was this.

The smoked white was a different beast entirely. On appearance, the leaves and stems had a smaller cut, almost broken pekoe-ish appearance. It was more in line with a Bai Mu Dan, visually. As for the aroma . . . oh my, “Yum.” Smoked teas tend to have an alternating hickory, campfiery and peaty scent to them. This had that but with a slight fruity tang on the back-end. Like someone lit a caramel-dipped apple on fire.

Given the smaller leaf pieces and the scent, I could almost imagine how the conversation between the innovators went.

Brilliant!

And then they punched each other in the face for solidarity.

For brewing, I went with a typical white tea approach – roughly 175F water and a three-minute steep for each. 1 heaping teaspoon of leaves in a 6oz. steeper cup.

Scottish White Tea

white tea

The regular white tea brewed to a vibrant yellow liquor with an aroma of berries, apples and spring leaves. This impression also echoed in the taste, which possessed a medium-bodied, creamy and fruit-sweet mouthfeel. It ended on a smooth, almost velvety finish with a lingering aftertaste of wilderness.

Scottish Smoked White Tea

smoked white tea

The smoked white brewed considerably darker, approaching Darjeeling amber in color. As for scent, well, it should be obvious. Straight peat moss and burnt wood wafted from the cup, but it was far more muted than I thought it would be. Not a negative thing at all, but a thankful subtlety that I wasn’t expecting. On taste, I was first greeted by whiskey, which then opened the door for chopped firewood, and courteously escorted an herbaceous finish.

I honestly can’t pick a favorite. White teas were the first loose leaf type I appreciated when my exploration was still in its infancy. Smoked teas appealed to my visceral, inner almost-manchild. On the one hand, I always appreciated the delicate and fruity aspects of tea. On the other, I liked to be hit in the face with blunt, burning trauma to my palate. I can’t decide, but what I can say is that this fledgling garden is off to a fantastic start.

brewed side by side

Would I pay $50-plus for their offerings? No. Of course, I’m probably saying that because I’m poor. For the moment, the price is slightly justified – both for the novelty and the rarity. Given that they’re only working with 2,000 plants – young ones, at that – they can easily ask for a higher price point for their yield. My hope is that when the operation expands, and more plants are introduced, that the price evens out a bit. With gardens in Northern Ireland, France, Switzerland and Italy going in, competition is bound to be fierce.

But they’re used to competition, aren’t they?

Rock tosser

Photo by Gene Rodman. “Model”: Gary Robson.

 

I’m just grateful this landed in my lap the way it did. And I can’t thank my mysterious benefactor enough. My diluted Scottish ancestry salutes ye, Mistress G.

UPDATE: I was just informed by one of the growers that they are now delivering globally. The last remaining stock can be purchased HERE.

I think I’ve made my point rather clear that I love Lapsang Souchong. Many of my blogs here, or on my manlier Devotea-backed side-project – Beasts of Brewdom – have extolled its virtues (and lack of subtlety). Maybe it was the campfire taste, or the trail of forest-fire it left on my tongue in its wake. Whatever the reason, it appealed to a side of me that – while small – was wholly testosteronal. Imagine my dismay when, after reading a blog by the estimable Austin Hodge, I learned that the pinewood-smoked black tea . . . was an endangered species.

Well, not entirely true. Anyone can smoke tea leaves (no, not that way), but it can’t be considered true Lapsang Souchong unless it’s grown and processed on Mount Wuyi in Fujian province, China. Of even greater value is Lapsang from the original village that invented it – Tong Mu. However, in recent years, production at the original site has dwindled. The reason? A newer, more marketable upstart – Jin Jun Mei.

Lapsang Souchong itself doesn’t fetch a high price in bulk. While it has an interesting story, and an even more fascinating processing style, it is considered a low-grade tea. In most circles, smoking tea leaves is a method for hiding any flaws the potential brew might have. It’s much harder to judge the quality of a leaf that is heavily smoked. Hence the reason the price per yield is much lower.

Jin Jun Mei, while a newer cousin to Lapsang Souchong, utilizes higher grade leaves. They tend to be younger and gold-tipped (as the “Jin” in the name implies). One could even compare the processing style to that of a gold-tipped Yunnan Dian Hong. I vaguely remember trying Jin Jun Mei several years ago, but it barely made an impression on me. Since then, the price per pound has sky-rocketed, and traditional Lapsang Souchong took a back seat.

A young, upstart tea nudging out one of my personal favorites? Not on my damn watch! It was high-time I gave this little gold weasel the brew-beating it deserved. As luck would have it, the wonderful company, Wild Tea Qi, sent me two teas to do exactly that.

It was time for a good ol’-fashioned . . .

In the right corner was a Wild Lapsang Souchong. In the left corner: A Tong Mu-produced Jin Jun Mei.

The “wild” in the Lapsang Souchong meant that the leaves were plucked from plants that were left to grow without much cutting. It, however, was not from Tong Mu.

The wild leaves were surprisingly thin, small and twisty – typical for a tea of its type, but there was something missing. The smell of smoke! Okay, not entirely true, it was sorta there but faint. It made me think back to another Lapsang that was smoked over wet pinewood instead of dry. Very similar aroma – woody, slightly sweet and malty.

The Jin Jun Mei? What the hell?! Okay . . . I know for a fact that it’s considered part of the “Souchong” family, but I was under the impression that it wasn’t smoked over pinewood – wet or dry. Its close sibling, Yin Jun Mei was. Heck, I’ve had it. But this?!

I digress.

When I tore open the bag, I was expecting tippy, young leaves – typical of a “gold” tea – but the ones I got here were darker and difficult to describe. Sure, there were gold-tippy pieces in the thin, twisty mini-pile of dry leaves. But here’s the thing . . . the aroma. Damn it, the aroma! It was smokier than the Wild Lapsang! How was that f**king possible?!

Calming down.

This required some background review of each tea’s profile. Wild Tea Qi said nothing about their Wild Lapsang Souchong being smoked. In point of fact, all they said was that it was “dried” over pine, then lightly fried. No smokeage. By contrast, their Jin Jun Mei was smoked, which went against everything I knew about the tea. (Granted, which wasn’t much.)

It was like I was about to brew up in a bizarro universe. All I needed was a goatee. I approached both teas the same way – a teaspoon of leaves in 6oz. steeper cups, infused for three minutes.

Wild Lapsang Souchong . . .

It brewed to a dark cherry wood liquor color with an unusually sweet aroma. Seriously, it reminded me of a chocolate bar melted on firewood. Taste-wise, the introduction was bitter, but it mellowed out quickly to a weird, almost floral middle before ending on a note of leather and ash. Just what I would expect a Lapsang to do, only with less burning.

Jin Jun Mei . . .

Holy crap! I mean, seriously. What the hell did I just taste? No, I’m not dissing it; quite the opposite. The liquor brewed up the same as the Wild Lapsang, but the aroma was fruitier – berry-ish, even. Also like the Lapsang, the flavor profile began the same way. The initial sip was smoke, which immediately transitioned to . . . cherries and honey dipped in burnt chocolate.

The winner? Damn it. I really didn’t want to say this . . . Jin Jun Mei.

It hit all the right marks, threw me for a loop in all the right ways. I loved the Wild Lapsang, but I adored the Jun Mei just a little bit more. This was seriously not how I thought this brewing session would turn out.

I don’t know what to believe anymore.

Imagine a college student discovering tea for the first time, and finding a teashop to frequent. After many visits during his college tenure – and following many dialogues with the owner – he mentions in passing, “I’m going to make a trip to India.” The owner of said teashop then says to the college student, “You should visit tea gardens while you’re there.”

That sort of conversation – albeit paraphrased – actually did take place between then-collegiate, Raj Vable, and Josh “J-TEA” Chamberlain. That small dialogue led Raj to form a partnership that would blossom into a fledgling tea company in late-2013. The company was called Young Mountain Tea, and its mission statement was near and dear to my heart: To promote direct links between tea farmers, tea vendors and tea consumers.

While still a young company, their lofty goals included carrying teas from already-existing small growers and sharing their stories. (Always my favorite.) As well as promoting the development of new farms in new growing regions. (Also my favorite.)

I had the pleasure of meeting up with Raj at Tea Bar roughly a month ago.

He explained their story to me, and also passed along some of the teas they were carrying. The one I had read about prior to the meeting – and immediately caught my eye – was Indi’s Gold. It was a black tea produced in Nilgiri under the management of one Indi Khanna – who may just be one of the most adorable Indian growers ever. Just watch the video and marvel at his adorableness . . . and the epicness of that mustache!

(Seriously, I want collectible plushy dolls of some of these grower dudes.)

Beyond the goal of growing the coolest mustache ever, Indi Khanna took a swath of land belonging to the Coonoor estate in Nilgiri, and turned it into an all-organic tea farm. Until recently, production had been so small scale, that teas produced on this small plot of land hadn’t been introduced to the U.S. market. As of a year ago, due to Young Mountan Tea’s introduction, that has changed. I was only a little excited to be one of the first to write about it.

Okay, a lot excited.

The leaves were small, tight and curly – much like a Bi Luo Chun – resembling snail-like, conical shells. Raj had informed me that Indi Khanna had them hand-rolled this way as an experiment. Whatever the reason, they were lovely leaves. The aroma they gave off was both spicy and fruit-zesty with a dash of something that reminded me of unsweetened vanilla.

There were no brewing instructions for this on the Young Mountain Tea site, but Raj recommended treating it with a light-touch. I figured a Darjeeling-ish technique would work well enough – 1 tsp. of leaves, water at just under a boil, and only a two-and-a-half-minute steep. It was my usual, go-to approach for Indian teas, anyway.

For the sake of full disclosure: The first brew I did at a full three minutes ended up extremely bitter. Like, Assam bitter but with more groin-punching. Two and a half minutes was the steeping sweet spot. One should not go over that.

The liquor brewed a medium-bold amber color with an oddly smoky/spicy aroma. I likened it to a Keemun aroma with a slight Darjeeling bend. On taste, the forefront was all Nilgiri – slightly astringent but satisfyingly apricot. That transitioned into a floral, almost jasmine-like middle, and trailed off into sweetness, spice and silk. The aftertaste was lingering, but not unwelcoming. A second infusion at a slightly longer time turned out even fruitier.

Nilgiri is the one growing region in India that has continued to surprise me in recent years. Often given a bad rep for low-quality teas, farmers like Suresh Nanjan and, now, Indi Khanna have been doing their darnedest to dispel such notions. I’m also overjoyed to see new companies like Young Mountain Tea taking a vested interest in their development.

I’ll keep a bird’s eye view from my cup. In my pajamas. Wishing to grow an epic mustache.

Early on in my tea writing “career”, there was one name that always popped up – Lindsey Goodwin. She was one of the tea writers on the scene, managed her own consultation website, and was the resident caffeine guru for About.com.

And at one point in time, she was also a Portlander. As one might imagine, that meant her name came up in regular, real-life conversation as well. “You haven’t met Lindsey?” “Oh, you really should talk to Lindsey!” Referencing her like she was a one-woman, all-knowing, tea drunk Grateful Dead concert.

LindseyBowlTeaLg

Eventually, I did reach out to Lindsey about three(-or-so) years ago to do an interview for my personal website. And then . . . I completely flaked on it. Partly out of complete shyness, and because . . . well . . . it’s me. However, by the time I mustered the gumption to touch bases again, she’d fallen completely off the tea grid.

There were whispers throughout the tea community that she was traveling around the world, doing research for a forthcoming book. Others said she was spotted in Taiwan, helping someone start up a teashop. There was no concrete evidence to corroborate any of these mythical claims. For all I knew, she found the one gateway to Narnia.

Then a funny thing happened.

In June of 2014, I received an e-mail from her wondering if I wanted a special delivery of Global Tea Hut’s magazine and tea. So, that was where she’d ended up! I knew next to nothing about the operation. The only bits of information I had were gleaned from fellow tea blogess – Nicole, Tea For Me Please – who described them as her “favorite tea hippie commune”.

Mi Xiang prep

Further digging turned up some fascinating information. Apparently, they were the “global” arm of an actual place in Miaoli, Taiwan called The Tea Sage Hut. And it was just as Nicole had described – a commune full of tea drinkers. That is probably over-simplifying their mission. Their primary goal was to spread knowledge and appreciation of “the Leaf” in an almost Taoist/Zen-ish way.

It was all beyond me.

What I could understand, though, was their global subscription service. That mission statement was simpler to define. And brilliant. As far as I knew, no one was putting out a monthly tea magazine that also included a thematically-linked tea with it. The June issue was centered around – not one, but two – teas of the same name; Mi Xiang, or “Honey Orchid”. One version was an oolong, and the other was a red (black) tea.

It was part of a sub-class of organic teas often jokingly referred to as “bug-bitten” teas. Due to a lack of pesticide use, tea plants were exposed to katydid onslaughts. As the little leafhoppers bit the leaves, a chemical change occurred to the leaf itself, resulting in a coating that imparted a honey-like taste. Eastern Beauty was the most common tea of this sub-category.

These particular Mi Xiangs were created by a gardener referred to as “Mr Xie”, located in Ming Jian, Nantou County, Taiwan. He was a third generation farmer. For him, the ideal picking time for bug-bitten tea leaves was between June and August.

Global Tea Hut covered his story in 2012 and revisited it in their June issue. His farming techniques matched their mission statement of promoting organic and sustainable tea growing practices. The fact that they featured two of his teas for comparison matched with my mission statement: Geeking out.

The difference between the two teas was obvious just from sight alone. The leaves for the “red” tea were . . . well . . . redder, at least in the stems. The leaves for the oolong were an alternating green and purple – like most mid-oxidized, ball-fisted oolongs. As for shape, both looked the same. The differences (beyond color) didn’t appear until I put my nose to the tin. The red version was noticeably sweeter and nuttier, whereas the oolong was more floral. Exactly what I thought the difference would be.

The Global Tea Hut magazine recommended simply brewing by the pot. Gongfu was suggested but not required. Given that this was a bug-bitten tea, I wanted to see what the nuances were. So, I opted for gongfu. (That and my teapot still smelled like Earl Grey from a prior brew-up.)

Mi Xiang Oolong

Three separate infusions – varying from thirty-to-forty seconds – resulted in light-green liquors and a honey-like aroma. Taste-wise, each one had a buttery introduction that transitioned quickly to straight sweetness, and ended on a white wine-like, Gewürztraminer-ish note. As expected, it was very similar to other bug-bitten oolongs I’d tried, if a little lighter on the body.

Mi Xiang Red

At the same brew times as the oolong, the red came out dark amber for each infusion. The aroma was nuttier, possibly even more mineral. On taste, the first infusion was a lot like the oolong version. But as I worked through the successive steeps, it got sweeter and deeper until I ended up tasting straight-up honey on the last.

If I were to pick a favorite…

I would have to go with the red. Taiwanese bug-bitten blacks are solid. They’re sweet, layered and popping with character. This one was no exception. It hit all the right marks on my palatial subjectivity. The oolong was great as well, but I was going through a bit of a black tea phase

Unfortunately, I wasn’t feeling any of the Tao-ish/Zen-ish stuff the magazine was talking about. That is, until I did a brew-up of the Mi Xiang red tea in a travel mug before work. I was stressed from additional responsibilities I’d taken on at my “day job”. That particular day promised to be extra difficult. By my third infusion . . . something amazing happened . . .

All of that stress just . . . washed away. Nothing mattered. Everything was finite, insignificant and trivial. That and I accomplished all of my tasks with some semblance of calm.

By sheer coincidence, around that third infusion, I received another e-mail from Lindsey Goodwin, explaining her remarkable, tea nomadic story. About how she ended up at the Tea Sage Hut, and her three-year stay there. She closed off the letter with, “Wishing wisdom with every sip.”

For a fleeting moment, I understood.