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.

It was New Year’s Eve . . . and I slept in. No major surprise there; I always sleep in on my days off. The only plans I had for that day were helping my brother with some housework and a friend’s party later on. In the meantime, I had a moment to myself to reflect on the year that was, and to think of a proper way to usher it out.

2014 was an odd year.

Not “bad” odd, mind you – just odd. It didn’t come close to topping the kickassery of 2013, but wonderful things did transpire. Also, some not-so-wonderful things. The good eventually outweighed the bad, though, and I looked back on it with a slight nod of, “That’ll do.”

It was a year of growth and new discoveries. Sure, I stumbled a bit on the hike, but overall, I learned, prospered and came out of it for the better. Both this blog and my regular website did better than ever, I contributed to other websites outside of my usual haunts, and guest-blogged for others. Some experiments worked; others didn’t. And along the way, I met amazing people.

I wanted to close out the year the way I came into it. Something that personified my mission statement – in tea as well as in life. The answer was simple – cup a weird tea from a weirdly-named country with a weird story behind it. Same as always.

Digging this one up started from a conversation with The Snooty Tea Person. One of our whimsical talks brought up the idea of tea grown in Europe. She had just discovered the Azorean Gorreana estate, and shared her exaltation for their green tea. I had tried it years ago and agreed with her. She mentioned that I should look into a new UK company that carried it – What-Cha.

First off, I thought, Great name for a tea company. Then I perused its website. They carried many unique offerings from several growing regions outside of the normal tea collective – the aforementioned Azores, Vietnam, Malawi and . . . wait-what?!

Azerbaijan?!

Azerbaijan

I knew nothing about the country – aside from its funny name and its touchy history with the former USSR. A quick glance at the Almighty Wiki mentioned that it was located in the Caucasus region (giggity!), and that Georgia was northwest of it. From that, I could discern that it was in an ideal area for growing tea – particularly the Russian-made cultivars derived from Sochi. I had teas from Georgia and Iran – two of its neighbors – and both had similar flavor profiles.

What-Cha had included some Azerbaijani grown tea as part of its Discover Europe Collection. The local brand name for it was Azercay. The products they produced were blends from different tea gardens found in the Lenkoran and Astara growing regions. The Azercay company website also mentioned that one of their flagship products was flavored with bergamot through a “special technology”. Well, that sounded pretty sweet.

Of particular interest was how What-Cha even discovered the existence of Azercay. Apparently, they had come across a blog written by the tea community’s resident Oolong Owl. I have to admit, I was slightly jealous. Not only was she the inspiration for a tea vendor’s product search, but she’d beaten me to writing about a new tea! To her credit, though, it was a great write-up.

Naturally, I went about procuring the Discover Europe Collection . . . and immediately bee-lined to the Azercay bag.

The leaves were soot black and had a hand-rolled appearance. They were curly, twisty, and all matters of unevenly beautiful. Honestly, I was expecting fannings or dust. Whole leaves were a pleasant surprise. The dry aroma they gave off was semi-sweet and sorta raisin-y.

What-Cha recommend 1-to-2 teaspoons per cup with a steep time of five-to-six minutes. Boiling water for the brewin’. I followed those to the letter.

The liquor brewed bold-‘n-dark crimson with an aroma of bitter malt and wood. There was also a leather underpinning to the scent. On taste, there was an astringent introduction, but as I sipped further, it mellowed out into a Keemun-like, Assam-ish experience. There was also a bit of Yunnan forest floor feeling in the finish. Quite an unusual – but strong! – black tea.

Can’t say I ran into anything that tasted like “special technology” bergamot flavoring, but whatever . . .

It was still a really good, burly tea to end the year on. Just as quixotic as 2014 itself.

Two things have been very consistent the last couple of weeks. I’ve written a lot about weird herbs lately, and I’ve been spending a lot of time at my parents’ house. I was starting to wonder if both were somehow – cosmically – connected. Proof showed itself on Saturday.

My sibling/roommate failed to tell me that our dryer was kaput. I had to learn of this morsel o’ knowledge while on the phone with my mother. Being the kind soul that she was, she offered up their dryer in case I had to do laundry. That was a given since I was one of those poor souls who worked a job that required a uniform. Weekly laundry travails were necessary.

Doing laundry at my parents’ house; I felt like a college student again.

Originally, though, my plan for the evening was to dip into a giant bushel of Greek Mountain “tea” I received from a new outfit called Klio Tea.

Heck with it, I thought. I’ll just brew it at my parents’. I packed a kettle, a cup, the Klio bag, and my clothes – all in a laundry basket – and off I went.

The good Nicole “Tea For Me Please” Martin had sent Klio Tea my way. My love for all things “Greek” and “Mountain” were common knowledge in the tea community. I first wrote about that fascinating herb back in 2010, and I’d extolled its virtues in one form or another ever since.

What was unique about Klio’s offering was the emphasis on orthodoxy. Sure, I’d had Greek Mountain before, but I honestly couldn’t tell you where it came from. This was the first outfit that was transparent about the origin and picking standards of the product they carried.

This particular batch hailed from Mount Othrys (wherever that is), and was organically sourced and unprocessed. They simply picked it, cut the stocks if necessary and packed it. What I hadn’t known this entire time was that the herb was picked fresh; no oxidation was meant to occur. Most herbs were dried before packing so that they could decoct or infuse better with water.

The freshness showed.

Upon first opening the bag at my parent’s house, the kitchen was bombarded with a scent of Mediterranean wilderness. Equal parts honey lemon and mint plumed through the air. A long time had passed since I last prepped Greek Mountain “tea”. I was oddly nostalgic for the smell.

For brewing, Klio didn’t even bother trying to explain it on their site. It’s kinda hard to describe; I should know. Instead, they did something better, and offered up this instructional video:

Their guide was “close” to my approach, but I preferred it another way. Putting a handful of herb stocks in, and boiling it for ten minutes, then decanting. No additional infusing.

Either process resulted in a yellow-to-amber liquor . . . and a kitchen that smelled like a Greek hillside. It was just as wonderful a sensation as always. I even shared the results of my labors with my mother – who was getting over a cold. (Since that’s what the herb was known for.)

finished brew

Did I like it? Answer: Does a Greek philosopher ask too many questions? Of course I bloody well liked it! It was like lathering my body in the finest oils, taking a hot bath in flowers, and being waited upon by nubile maidens from a neighboring village. All the while being spoon-fed fresh lemons from a chained cherub.

But . . . that’s not an image I would ever share with my parents.

Oh, would you look at that . . . laundry’s done.

Yaupon is a species of holly native to the southeastern United States. It is a close cousin to two other holly species – guayusa and yerba mate – and, like those, it is also caffeinated. It was used as a common ingredient by several Native American tribes in an herbal concoction called asi – or “black drink”. Said tisane was an important part of male-only purification rituals.

In 1696, a Quaker merchant – Jonathan Dickinson – observed this ritual firsthand among the Ais people of pre-statehood Florida. The ritual included an unfortunate result . . . vomiting. Since then, European settlers incorrectly assumed that it was the primary herb that induced the reverse peristaltic reaction. And, so, the plant was given the unfortunate delineation – Ilex vomitoria.

A book was even written about the subject.

For years after learning of this “black drink”, I was fascinated by it. Yet no one had bothered to try and cultivate it, yet. Aside from some random YouTube videos describing it tasting like yerba mate, I found no one selling the stuff. Unless I wanted to go to Florida and pick it myself, there was no way I was going to try it. Perhaps folks didn’t think they could market something called “vomitoria”. Wonder why?

That all changed around 2012. Small outfits started cropping up touting this “new, American caffeinated herb”. Perhaps it was due to yerba mate’s rise in popularity, or the insurgent arrival of guayusa on the herbal infusion market. Whatever the reason, it was finally here.

I didn’t get my first chance to try it until World Tea Expo 2014. A company out of Florida called Yaupon Asi Tea had a booth. Available for tasting were some of their blends and their flagship cut yaupon. I remember it tasting a lot like guayusa, which was a good thing. (I wasn’t the biggest fan of yerba mate.)

After the Expo, I got in touch with them to acquire some for a comparison. Among their many wares, they carried both a whole leaf version of yaupon and a cut leaf variant. The whole leaf version was there because it was the more traditional presentation of the herb. A side-by-side tasting intrigued me.

Several months later (er, just yesterday) I finally sat down and gave ‘em a whirl.

The whole leaf yaupon had an appearance of – well – whole leaves that were freshly picked and oxidized. I was quite surprised to see a purplish hue to some of the leaves – likely due to an abundance of the chemical, anthocyanin, also found in Kenyan purple tea. As for aroma, there wasn’t much of one besides a dry, forest-bedding-like presence.

The cut leaf version was a markedly different beast with needle-like parts along with the requisite leaf parts. The color of the leaves was greener with some purple strewn about. The aroma was also more minty, sweet and welcoming. It reminded me strongly of guayusa in this form.

For brewing, the directions on the Yaupon Asi Tea site were fairly straightforward. They recommended a standard herbal approach – boiling water, five-minute steep. I did exactly that to both.

The whole leaf yaupon came out practically clear in the cup.

Even more so than a white tea, at least those had a yellow tinge to the liquor. There was a bit of a flavor change, but one had to search for it. It reminded me of tangy olive leaves and a bit like mint. Some residual sweetness showed up on the finish, but – like the rest – it was mild.

This required a second attempt with moar leaves at a longer steep time. Seven minutes sounded about right.

Vast improvement. Some color showed up in the liquor, and the flavor – while still subtle – was sweet and spry.

The cut leaf version was . . .

Woooonderfuuuuullllll.

The liquor was a deep amber-green – giving off a sweet, almost artichoke-y aroma. On taste, it opened with a sweet and herbaceous kick – similar to guayusa – dried out a little in the middle like yerba mate, but ended with straight creaminess on the back. It was far more layered than either of its holly cousins. And, dang, if I didn’t bolt upright from a caffeine kick or three.

I liked both versions quite a bit and for different reasons. The whole leaf yaupon worked as a late-afternoon pick-me-up, whereas the cut leaf was a balls-to-the-walls get-your-ass-outta-bed morning beverage to the core. For overall flavor experience, if I was pressed, I’d choose the cut leaf as an everyday beverage. Sure, the whole leaf is more traditional, but I’m not really a traditional kinda guy.

All said, I was glad to have yet another two tastes of ‘Merica in my cup(s) – sans vomiting.