I can’t cook . . . worth a damn.

The only interest I’ve ever taken in food preparation is, well, how to eat it. That is where my exploration of the culinary arts begins and often ends. Beyond the making of an epic sammich (yes, sammich, not sandwich), my ability to cook, bake, and . . . just generally follow instructions of any kind falters.

What does one expect from a guy who screwed up Easy Mac? Twice. In one session.

I highlight all of this to illustrate that I am the most unqualified candidate for food-related events, such as the one I attended on Saturday.

Steeped

Smith Teamaker had booked a cook book author for a demonstration at their HQ. The author in question was Annelies Zijderveld, and her new book was Steeped: Recipes Infused with Tea. As the title suggests, the focus was on how to use tea in a culinary capacity. (Y’know, besides just sprinkling kitchen-grade matcha on everything and calling it a tea recipe.)

Tea MC Tiff, Smith’s social media guru-ess, sent me an invitation to the demo a couple of months back. Initially, I had to decline because of my dodgy weekend work schedule. However, by some stroke of foodie fate, I ended up with the day off. I planned my day around the event accordingly, “hired” the lovely M. Tepper to photograph the proceedings, and the mission was a “go”.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect, having never attended a cooking demonstration before. A part of my mind was picturing Julia Child caked in green tea powder. That non sequitur image was dispelled upon entering Smith’s boardroom. Tiff expertly corralled us press folk, and took us to the back kitchen.

Annelies and her assistant-du-jour were aproned and bustling.

Annelies

There were tea and foodstuffs everywhere. My tummy growled in both frustration and delight. I hadn’t eaten lunch, yet. Said stomach reminded me quite loudly. But back to the book . . .

Annelies’s inspiration for writing Steeped came during her time working for a tea company. Yes, she actually had tea industry experience. One day, while working on something menial, she grabbed a gyokuro leaf and started chewing on it. She liked the taste so much, she figured, why not a cook book?! Stranger inspirations have happened. I once plotted an epic space battle in the shower – sound effects and all.

Participants were first asked to indulge in a tea tasting.

Tasting

Bowls of Long Jing, Roobios, Lord Bergamot, Keemun Hao Ya, Masala Chai, and ceremonial grade matcha lay in front of us. I was surprised at the last one. Usually, in regards to cooking, culinary grade matcha was utilized for recipes – mainly for bulk amount and cost effectiveness. I was a bit elated by this high-brow change.

Palates primed, Annelies then guided us through several ways to use the teas in various recipes. Many called for using a simple coffee grinder to pulverize loose tea leaves into a course (but not matcha fine) powder. Roobios was utilized in a butter recipe that was simply divine – with a capital diva! Long Jing was, quite surprisingly, put to good use as part of a furikake seasoning for popcorn. Keemun was paired with salt for a white bean walnut spread. Masala Chai was used for nifty li’l cupcake thingies. And good ol’ matcha was paired with coconut to form . . . something. (I forgot the name of it. Wasn’t a fan.)

But my favorite . . . oh dear lord . . . my favorite . . .

Earl Grey yogurt parfait

F**king Earl Grey yogurt!!!

Holy bergamot balls this was good. And the best part, the recipe was easy. Put simply, it was dunking Earl Grey (in a filter bag or sachet) in yogurt, repeatedly, for three days, and stirring. Even I couldn’t screw that up. The results were astounding. In plain yogurt, the bergamot notes were subtle and sweet, but still there.

The demo ended with an opportunity to purchase the book and mingle a bit with the authoress. By the end of the two-hour event, I was full and quite caffeinated. Lost track of my appetite. As a parting gift from Smith’s, we were each given a tea “starter kit” to try some of the recipes at home.

starter kit

Now . . . all I need is yogurt. Lots of yogurt.

In more informed tea circles, it is common knowledge that teabags are crap. Those little bags of ass-flavored tea usually contain the dust left over after the good, loose leaf tea was packaged. The taste of an average black tea from a bag is rough and bitter, like licking a chalkboard. (Yes, I’ve tried that.) But what about sachets?

travel mug

Even the word sounds snobbish. The definition isn’t any better: “A perfumed bag used to scent clothes”. However, sachets (sans perfuming or clothing) have been adopted by many tea producers and vendors to package whole leaf tea in a convenient way for undiscerning consumers. Let’s face it. Not all of those that are curious about loose leaf tea want to go through the trouble of using a strainer.

The issue for most orthodox tea drinkers isn’t the idea of a filter bag, but rather the material – and the fact that said sachet may prevent whole tea leaves from properly . . . uh . . . breathing. (Their language, not mine.) Many loose leaf tea drinkers believe that confining the leaves to a foreign material while brewing affects the flavor.

I, honestly, never had an opinion one way or the other. Granted, I preferred brewing tea loose leaf – even so far as to just put leaves in a mug, no strainer. However, there were plenty of teas out there that were duly sacheted I liked. One of my favorite outfits, Smith Teamaker offered consumers the option of loose leaf or sachet, and I flip-flopped between the two.

But it was high-time I finally saw for myself if there was really a difference between the methods. Did sachets negatively influence the experience? I needed a good example to go on. Luckily, I received an oolong from an organic tea garden in Bangladesh, and it happened to come in biodegradable sachets. Perfect for just such a side-by-side comparison.

Teatulia was started in the early 2000s in Northern Bangladesh. It was the first – and so far, only – organic tea garden in the country. They were also among the first farm-direct outfits on the scene. I had the pleasure of trying some of their wares several years ago. Of particularly noteworthiness was their white tea. However, I had no idea they had an oolong among their wares. When they contacted me recently, that was the tea I selected to drench myself in. Er . . . for science.

I brewed a bag once for a work shift, but didn’t pay much attention to it. On a second go-around, I wanted to brew it loose.

oolong loose

I’m glad I did because it gave me ample opportunity to see the leaves up close. They looked similar to Teatulia’s black tea. Many of them were lighter in color – tippier, even – betraying their semi-oxidized process. The aroma also possessed a fruitier lean. Some chocolate also showed up in traces on a whiff.

Teatulia recommended putting one sachet in an 8oz. cup of boiled water for two-to-three minutes. I went about two-and-a-half to be on the safe side. For once, I wasn’t feeling totally rambunctious with my brewing.

oolong brewed

The result was a bold, copper-brewed liquor with an aroma of malt and nuts. The taste initially began with a bitter prologue, but that smoothed out to something floral, sweet and burly! Like getting a hug from a honey-dipped flower on steroids. The finish was all sorts o’ nuanced. I couldn’t pick up on anything specific, other than a gurgle of delight. It reminded me of some of the oolongs from Nepal I’d come in contact with.

But now I had to do some serious business.

side by side

Which method was better? Loose leaf . . . or sachet? Would there be a noticeable flavor difference between the two? Did the leaves really need to breeeeaaaaathe?

Short answer: No.

side by side brewed

Was there a flavor difference? Not a damn one.

Granted, there might not have been a difference because both the leaves had originally been sacheted. Results may have differed if I had acquired some straight-up, loose leaf oolong to properly compare. That and the cut of the leaves was fairly small, thus allowing for ideal brewing by either method. A tea brewed from larger, whole leaves in a sachet might produce different results. But as I see it, there was no glaring detraction from the sachet. No trace of “silk” on the palate.

My subjective, semi-informed verdict: A teabag is bad, but a sachet is okay.

sachet okay

Let’s talk a little about terroir.

indeed

It’s a word usually bandied about by wine folks in order to sound “edumacated”. Blame the French. The word “terroir” derives from the French word “terre”, which literally means “land”. Terroir, as a concept, is applied to plants that are influenced by the “land” where they grow. Geology, geography, climate, and other aspects of the biosphere affect what grows in certain ways. And especially in the case of wine, coffee and tea, the taste of said terroir shows up in the finished product.

Tea plants are especially absorbent of their environment. Case in point (as I’ve mentioned in prior articles), Hawaiian teas taste distinctly . . . well . . . tropically Hawaiian. Wuyi cliff teas taste rather . . . uh . . . cliffy. [Credit: Nicole Martin] And teas from the Himalayas take on a grapy bend, for some reason.

Which brings me back to Doke Tea. Yet again.

Doke

Seriously, I think I’ve written about this tea garden more than any other. I can’t help it. Their teas are awesome, the Lochan family is awesome, and I feel awesome when drinking their wares.

Of the four or five types of teas this garden in Bihar, India produces, I’ve noticed a common underlying flavor profile. It’s difficult to describe, and far different from any other Indian tea growing region. Something about the terroir near the Doke River imparts an ever-present, honey-nut-spice taste trifecta. A trinity of taster notes that is especially present in their flagship black tea – Black Fusion.

I have a very interesting relationship with this tea. One would if they’ve written about it three times. After three successive growing seasons. Only now do I realize how wonderful an opportunity that was, to see a tea’s evolution and growth over the course of a year. And in February of this year, Vivek Lochan offered me a chance to try their 2015 first flush Black Fusion.

A slight digression: The journey of this tea to my cup was especially frustrating. I wasn’t at my apartment when the package arrived, so the courier left a note telling me where to pick it up. The next day, I went to fetch it after work . . . two towns away. I made the trek only to find out that they delivered it to my apartment complex’s office.

Well, why the hell didn’t you do that the FIRST time?! I said to myself (but not out loud).

Two months would go by before I dipped into the new batch of Black Fusion. The day I finally decided to brew it up, my Internet died. I needed something to calm me amidst the downtime.

black fusion loose

The leaves were gorgeous – brown-to-black, large, plump, and obviously hand-rolled. The smell was like last year’s various flushes of Black Fusion I tried – equal parts honey-like, malty, nutty and slightly spicy. The Doke terroir was in full effect, and I was pleased to see it again.

I approached it like I would any other Indian first flush tea, with a little bit of a light touch. I used about a teaspoon of leaves. (Although, with how large they were, it was more like a tablespoon.) I put them in a 6oz. steeper cup filled with 200F water, and waited for three minutes.

black fusion brewed

The result was a dark amber liquor with a deep-bodied, honey-nut machismo to the aroma. When I tasted it, I noticed immediately that it was different than last year’s offerings. The introduction was smooth and sultry, like a dark-haired Latina in a silk dress. As I kept it on my tongue, the honey-nut-spice thing it had going came to the forefront, but absent was the usual astringency that followed. That was the puzzling part. There was no astringency, or at least none that I could detect.

I’ve become sort of an expert on the Doke flagship tea, at this point. I even adamantly declared that August 2014’s batch of the tea was my favorite, May was second, and December rounded out third. All were wonderful; all were different. But they all had a rough character to them. This year’s batch was like a distilled whiskey or a matured wine. It was Black Fusion refined – terroir transcendent.

A day or so after I did my solo tasting, I was greeted with a photo posted to my Facebook Wall.

iced Doke

It read: “Iced Black Fusion from Doke in their office in Siliguri, jealous?”

 

Phil “World Tea House” Holmans had visited the Doke Tea Estate with a bunch of other tea folks I knew. Jealous? Oh yes, quite a bit. Those lucky bastitches were sampling Doke teas straight from the terroir! My only reaction to this was to drink. A lot. Not sure if it was my seething jealousy, or my poor impulse control, but I went on a total Doke bender that week.

During a chat session with other tea bloggers (Rachel, Jo, Nicole, Other Nicole, and Chris, respectively), I was hopped up on Doke Silver Needle white tea.

Doke Silver Needle

About three pints of it.

A mere day after that, I prepped my daily travel mug with some Doke Rolling Thunder oolong.

Doke Rolling Thunder

And brewed it at double the usual strength. Coworkers noted that I was a tad off the wall. One girl even said, “I like you like this.” I was too hyper to properly manblush.

I concluded the week taking the last vestiges of my first flush 2015 Black Fusion . . . and blending it with the two 2014s I had in my possession.

spent leaves

Yes, individually, they all tasted differently, but put together . . . magic ensued. It was like the honey-nut-spice terroir was somehow amplified. All the creamy, sweet, spicy, malty, nutty, and majestic aspects coalesced into the ultimate tasting experience. Like I was tasting pure Doke.

Toward the conclusion of this brew-binge, a friend of mine dubbed me a “Doke dork”. I had no rebuttal to that. If I had, I probably would’ve answered like some terroir-spouting wine snob, “I can quit whenever I want.”

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.