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.

endangered

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 . . .

Art by Justin Gerard.

Art by Justin Gerard.

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

pre-brew

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?!

Lapsang on the left, Jun Mei on the right

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 . . .

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 . . .

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.

Both brewed

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.

Raj

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.

Indi's Gold leaves

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.

Indi's Gold brewed

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.

Black tea on the left; oolong on the right.

Black tea on the left; oolong on the right.

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.

Mr. Xie

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

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

Mi Xiang red tea

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 . . .

Fry Zen

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.

Finale

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.

2014 platyupus

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.

azercay loose

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.

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.

azercay brew

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.

bag

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.

greek mountain

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.

kettle

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.

hedonism

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.

Black Drink

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.

Yaupon

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.

whole leaf first try

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.

whole leaf second try

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

The cut leaf version was . . .

cut leaf

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.

yaupon finale

Roughly four years ago, I wrote about a unique Hawaiian herb often used for herbal infusions. It was called Mamaki, but its science-y delineation was Pipturus albidus. The herb was a cousin of stinging nettle, and I felt some of those traits showed up in the taste. However, the product I had was blended with stevia, so my attempts at separating them may have been faulty.

In the same article, I made mention of another herb (or rather, set of herbs) collectively referred to as Ko’oko’olau (genus Bidens). They were often heralded for their purported health properties, and – like Mamaki – were used for tisanes. I never thought I’d get a crack at Ko’oko’olau until an opportunity came…from an old coworker.

Said coworker returned from a stint to Hawaii with her boyfriend. While there, they also spent time with her boyfriend’s brother…who just happened to be the co-founder of Mamaki Native Hawaiian Herbal Tea. They leased land (ahupuaʻa) in the district of Punaluʻu through the Kamehameha school district.

Kamehameha

Yes, I thought that, too.

The goal of the school district – regarding the land – was to promote Hawaiian sustainability, but they only took in a few farmers at a time. And only if there was a clear goal in mind.

garden

Well, tea is a clear enough goal to me.

I met up with my former coworker a week before my birthday, and she presented me with several sample bags from the farm. I was expecting the requisite Mamaki blends, but was shocked to discover a humble sammich bag with felt writing. It read: “Ko’oko’olau”. I just about leapt out of my own brain. It was from the farmer’s personal stash. Four years had passed, and the elusive herb came to me.

Alas, in the hustle and bustle of Fall, I completely forgot brew it up. It wasn’t until the ol’ coworker inquired about the tisanes a couple of months later, my memory finally jogged. She asked me if I had tried them yet.

I replied with, “Uh…trying them right now as a matter of fact.”

*Cue nervous laughter*

Then hastily got to brewing.

First up was the Ko’oko’olau.

dry ko'oko'olau

The herbal mix was mainly leaf parts and twigs, but what I found surprising was how oxidized they looked. They were so brown that I wondered if they’d been roasted to speed up the drying. That was something I felt wasn’t done enough with herbs – oxidation. I always wondered if the flavor profile on some herbs would be more robust.

I wasn’t sure what the proper brewing technique was for this, so I went with a default tisane approach: 1 tsp., a 6oz. steeper cup of boiled water, and a five-minute wait.

Ko'oko'olau

The resulting liquor was a light crimson, similar to a Darjeeling black – only more rustic. There wasn’t much of an aroma, but it was pleasant and slightly sweet. The taste outright slapped me with excellence. It was like a Japanese sencha had an extramarital affair with lemon verbena…and invited a gingersnap cookie to film the proceedings. Expectedly herbaceous, but sweet and calming.

While I was on a roll, I figured I would fire up the kettle for some of the farm’s flagship Mamaki. I was initially disappointed to notice that the loose leaves were practically fannings.

dry mamaki

Not only would straining be difficult, but I had no clue how the flavor would turn out. The smaller the leave particles, the more surface are for flavor yield – true – but I was skeptical. Optimistically so, though.

The brewing guide for this one was also a little bizarre. Per the MNHHT site, they recommended bringing 8 cups of water to a boil, adding a tablespoon of herb to it, and letting the boil continue for another five minutes. Once the boil was done, they suggested letting the concoction steep for another fifteen. Preferable results also came from overnight infusions.

Those instructions barely made me flinch. I sounded very similar to the way Greek Mountain “tea” was brewed. Bring it, I challenged.

Mamaki

I’ll be darned if they don’t know what they’re talking about. The liquor brewed just as dark as the Ko’oko’olau with a nettle-ish aroma. However, the true test of its character was on taste. Unlike the whole leaf Mamaki I tried years ago, this was creamy and sweet. It was more akin to guayusa or Yaupon holly than it was stinging nettle. The aftertaste was layered and felt like a blanket of…niceness in its lingering velvety yumminess.

As to favorites, though, gotta go with the Ko’oko’olau. It was something I wish I had more of. Mamaki was only a hair behind in flavorful experience. According to the Almighty Wiki, the genus Bidens family of plants are threatened by habitat loss. Now more than ever, attempts to promote farming sustainability are crucial. If only to put more delicious herbs in my cup.

I picked a helluva month to quit drinkin’.

helluva day

Okay, not “quit”, per se, but definitely a self-imposed sabbatical toward beer. A beerbatical, if you will. Over the last couple of years, I’d naval-gazed my relationship with alcohol. Sure, I didn’t overdue it often, but questionable decisions had been made. That and it was no longer as “social” a beverage as it once was.

I hung out with maybe five other dudes who drank – never all at once. That’s not a party; that’s a Family Guy episode. And I won’t even go into the missing hubcap on my car.

As a result of this catharsis, I decided a break was in order. I wish I’d known what was ahead of me before I did so. Work drama, matters of the heart, and other familiar growing pains manifested in rapid succession. Good things were happening, true, but they were automatically offset by a perpetual feeling of being kneed in the groin.

I needed an outlet – a social one.

Enter the Portland Tea MeetUp group.

Portland Tea Meet-Up

Tea – the beverage that never steered me wrong. I drank it often, but I was rarely social with it. Sure, I was social online about my tea consumption, but rarely in real life. There was a burgeoning tea community present in Portland, but I stuck to its periphery like some kind of creeper with a cup. I thought it high time to change that.

As luck would have it, a meet-up was scheduled for this weekend. The reason? Freaking tubas!!! In Downtown Portland, situated at Pioneer Square, was a holiday tuba concert. Tubas…playing Christmas carols. And we would drink tea during it.

Everything about that sounded amazing.

The biggest issue for me? Finding the perfect tea to bring. The internal struggle didn’t last long. I chose the best black tea I’d had all year.

Doke Black Fusion

Black Fusion, Autumn Flush 2014, from the Doke Tea Estate.

Yes, I’m aware I’ve already written about it. There’s even a Batman Brews video floating around extolling its virtues. But that was only the first flush version. The one I had in my possession now was the autumn flush. And it was perfect.

Like the first flush, there were notes of nuts, spice and malt – betraying it’s assamica heritage – but for the autumnal crop, there was an added nuance. I didn’t quite put my finger on it until the day I brewed it for the tuba gathering. There was a strong sensation I had while tasting it that reminded me of honey. The autumn flush was sweeter and more textured than the first.

*Sigh* Oh yeah…back to the meet-up.

Almost seeing tubas

I was almost late to the gathering. Traffic was a particularly artful brand of “SUCK!” that day, and I had a prior engagement on the other side of town. Along with my expected road rage was a feeling of…dread. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t socialized with tea before, but rather that I wasn’t particularly good at it. I’m a bit of a geek, can’t help it.

Luckily, so were they. The moment I arrived, I felt like I was in like company. Three folks brought canisters of chai. One particular gent was rockin’ two travel carafes. One held a high-oxidized Taiwanese oolong; the other, a seven-year-aged purple varietal pu-erh. I partook of both.

The purple varietal…oh my.

Purple varietal

Another of the group members brought cups and homemade banana bread for the sharing. It went perfectly with…well…everything. Particularly with the tea.

And in the background, tubas played. The square was jam-packed with people, however. I think I caught a glimpse of, maybe, one tuba – two at the most – until the crowd dispersed. If I had one complaint about the performance, it was that the carols they chose were too down-tempo. If you’re rockin’ a gosh-durned tuba, you must have bombastic carols in your rotation. “Little Drummer Boy”, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, etcetera. While the concert was nice, it faded into background noise over conversations of tea and general geekery.

I did have moments of occasional social faux pas, though, particularly when I uttered the line, “I am a man, and the world is my toilet!” Yes, I was sober. Tea drunk, maybe…but sober.

In closing, I think I could get used to this “tea socializing” thing.

clank

Next time, I’ll work on the tact.

Three years ago, I posed a theory about tea and dating, wherein I said that neither the two should blend. After failing at such attempts several times, I considered myself an informed (if bitter) expert on the subject. Granted, there was some…outlying evidence to the contrary; for me it was a no-no. But then I saw an old couple.

I was in a random tearoom, enjoying a sandwich and Silver Needle, and a man in his late twenties arrived with an elderly couple – his parents. Their names, I overheard, were – and I’m not joking – Pearl and Earl. Just hearing their names made my heart sigh.

sigh

That’s what I wanted. To skip the travails and rigmarole of dating and go straight to the “old-couple-in-a-tearoom” phase. I wanted to find the Pearl to my Earl.

Years later, I believed I found the candidate. She was one of my coworkers, and she was British. I’d written about her before. Twice, even. She was beautiful, but didn’t seem aware of it. She possessed wit, but was subtle about it. And she was charming…but needlessly downplayed it.

In short order, I thought, I might like her.

We hung out at a coffee shop once over the summer. Both of us ordered tea. She went with the Jasmine Pearls; I went with an Earl Grey. Sparks didn’t exactly fly. Conversation was strained but friendly. I considered it a failure, but a quiet one.

A few months later, she texted me, “Do you want to grab tea sometime next week?”

I responded with a, “Sure!”…but I had no plan in mind.

One arrived the following day when I learned of a coffee shop called The Red E. They were one of the few places in Portland that served cascara – a tisane made from the husks of coffee cherries. Mizuba Tea’s Lauren had told me about it. I posed this idea to the British girl, and she was game.

Red E

The cascara reminded me of hibiscus, only more subdued on the tartness. And, boy, was it ever caffeinated. I suppose it helped because our conversation was far more animated than our previous outing. We seemed more comfortable around each other, and conversed like two old friends.

Yep, I like her, I thought to myself.

In the ensuing weeks, she informed members of our work team that she was homesick, and set on returning to the UK. I was saddened to hear it, but figured I better make the most of it. I aimed to spend as much time with her as our schedules would allot.

Our third outing was one we both suggested to each other – The Fly Awake Tea Garden. A couple in Northeast Portland had converted their garage and driveway into a tearoom, herbal shop and herb garden. It was amazing.

fly awake

We sipped one of the best examples of artisan chai we ever beheld, and were treated to a yixing pot of Da Hong Pao by one of the owners. All the while, we traded barbs, shared stories, and laughed. I could’ve listened to that laugh for the rest of my life.

Whoah, I really like her, I mused.

For our penultimate outing, we were finally able to make it to a place we’d wanted to hunt down for ages. She had mentioned that Pix Patisserie served Earl Grey truffles, and I was craving the idea of them ever since. One random (if late) night, we finally dove into them. Or at least, I did. (She wasn’t fond of Earl Grey anything.)

Earl Grey truffles

At first, I couldn’t taste the bergamot. That and there were so many other flavors vying for attention. By the second truffle, I could easily weed out the bergamot base and savored it. Just as I savored her company.

As we walked back to my car, having lost track of time, I realized, Damn, I’m in love with her. How inconvenient.

Our final tea-ish outing was a jaunt to one of my new favorite spots, Tea Bar. She ordered their matcha latte, while I stuck with my new mainstay – their Lapsang latte. They prepped the milk in such a way that the foam formed hearts at the top of the cups.

heart lattes

Right then, I almost told her how I felt…but I held it in.

After all, what was the point? She was leaving, and it was fairly clear the feelings were nowhere near reciprocal. Why push the envelope?

As I write this, she’s on a plane back east.

But I did come to one conclusion. She may have not been the Pearl to my Earl, but I was now open to the idea of finding her. After our repeated tea outings, I realized I rather enjoyed having a partner-in-crime on these little jaunts. My rule needed to be changed. While it still held true that tea and dating didn’t work, the same could not be said for tea and relationships.

Other beverages are temporary. Coffee, beer and wine buzzes are fleeting. They’re necessary only in reminding us that we still have a heartbeat. Tea, though? Tea is a journey. From that first cup to the last. It is a story waiting to be told. And when told with another, it is pure time-released bliss.

There’s a man I know who owns a teashop in Eugene, OR. I’ve probably mentioned him from time to time. He met a girl who came into his teashop. Over the course of time, they got to know each other. Then one day, before he knew it, they were married, and later had a son.

That is what I needed to hold out for. Tea wasn’t for everyone, just as tea and dating weren’t for everyone. It was the perfect way to weed out the wrong ones. I just had to hold out for the right one…

The Pearl to my Earl.

old couple

Image mooched from Dante Mag.

After covering more barrel-aged teas than I ever thought possible, it was only a matter of time before an idea struck me. It wasn’t actually my idea, though. The lead blender at Smith Teamaker suggested several years ago, “Why don’t you try it yourself? Get a barrel and just roll with it.” Not his exact words, but the idea stuck.

When visiting a friend up in Seattle, I brought up this notion. I also lamented that acquiring a large bourbon barrel – and finding someplace to put it – was a near impossibility. My friend said, “Well, they do make micro-barrels.” The idea blossomed into a kernel.

A few years later, I was perusing the Bootleg Botanicals Facebook page. They were starting up a new line of alcohol infusion kits. The new line included 3-liter micro-barrels for aging. In the comments section, I inquired about procuring a used one for experimental purposes – at whatever fee. Ryan Belshee – the co-owner – gave me the titular reply of, “Lemme see what I can do.”

Less than a week later, he came back to me with confirmation that he could acquire a used 1-liter barrel. It had been used for aging bourbon. The next obstacle was finding the right tea to put in it.

I mentioned my percolating idea to Norbu Tea’s Greg Glancy. The notion of a bourbon barrel-aged anything intrigued him. He offered up some of his back-stock for the experiment. Plenty of his wares sounded enticing, but in the end, I chose his 2012 harvest Ye Sheng Hong Cha as my guinea pig.

loose tea

Upon receiving the tea, I immediately dug in to confirm whether or not it would complement a bourbon note. The resulting brew was wood-sweet (like a Keemun), Earthy (like a sheng pu-erh) and malty (like a second flush Assam). Unlike any other Yunnan Dian Hong I’d tried. Might’ve been due to it’s uh…wild-ness…

Taz

Or something.

Ryan Belshee contacted me a week or so later informing me of the micro-barrel’s arrival. We arranged a day to play around with it. The micro-barrel was – for lack of a better word – adorable.

Teeny barrel and tea

Far smaller than I thought it would be. We determined that roughly 200 grams of tea leaves would fit inside. The real challenge was how. The micro-barrel’s original bunghole (yes, that’s what it’s called) was extremely small. We needed an opening that was roughly eleven-or-so inches in diameter.

Luckily, Ryan had a drill on site with that size of bit. After making a large enough opening, we journeyed to a brewery supply store and picked up a plug for the bunghole. (*snicker*) Then, it was time.

pouring tea

The 200g pile o’ leaves were poured into the barrel and duly plugged.

I guesstimated that the aging process would only take about two weeks. Most companies I’d encountered usually barrel-aged their teas for a month and a half. Given the smaller size of this barrel, I figured it would be done aging in half that time.

Roughly two days went by when Ryan imparted some advice. “Don’t you think you should tap the barrel to see how the tea is doing?”

“Nah,” I replied, “should be fine.”

“Just humor me.”

“Okay(?).”

The next morning, I did so. Due to some of the residual moister in the barrel, the dry leaves had become more pliable. This worried me a little. Following that, I brewed ‘em up for a taste-test.

first cupping

Whoah, I thought. In only two days, the flavor had changed. The tea was noticeably oaky and had taken on a bit of the liquor sweetness. Not peaty, just sweet.

I got back in touch with Ryan and said, “Change of plans. We’re tapping this in a week; not two.” The moisture and rapid flavor change worried me.

Two days later, I tapped the barrel again. This time, I brewed the contents and the untampered tea leaves side-by-side. Just to see how much it was changing.

side by side

The barrel-aged version differed from the original in its…almost tiramisu-ish quality. Both retained the same sweetness and woody taste, but the barreled rendition had more of it. It was noticeably more molasses-like.

That Sunday, I did the final tapping with the Bootleg Botanicals team. We laid out a tray, covered it in tinfoil, and spread the barrel-aged leaves on it.

laying it on a platter

Melanie Belshee (Ryan’s wife) pre-heated their stove at the lowest setting, and then turned it off. The tray of leaves was placed inside to quicken the drying process. Whatever residual moisture remained would vanish quickly with very little flavor loss, or so I hoped.

Once finished we did a side-by-side cupping of the original Ye Sheng Hong Cha, and it’s “Wild Bourbon Black, Mark-1” sibling.

Final side by side

While all the taster notes I mentioned earlier were there, all three of us agreed that there wasn’t enough of a liquor note to justify the laborious process. The flavor had changed considerably. It was sweeter, smoothed-out, and more layered. But nothing about it screamed “bourbon”, save for the smell of the dry leaves.

It was time for Mark-II.

Mark II

For a second attempt, we decided to take another 200 grams of leaves…and spritz them with actual bourbon, prior to placing it in the barrel.

Mark II spritz

The hope was that it would dry out the leaves and prevent any moisture from collecting. Not that there was much moisture left in the barrel, anyway. I taste-tested it a couple of days after, and the results were…”off”.

I couldn’t explain why, but the flavor was muddled – schizophrenic, even. Like it couldn’t tell if it was tea or liquor anymore.

A few days later, I gave it another go. Things had considerably improved. It had a lot in common with the Mark-I, but the flavor was considerably dryer – more astringent and lingering. Similar to a dry Riesling, if I wanted to reach for a comparison.

As of…well…today, Wild Yunnan Black, Mark-II is still in the barrel. I haven’t dared do a final tapping, seeing what it’ll do as time passes. Thus far, the flavor hasn’t changed much. It’s still wood-sweet, oaky, dry…and only subtly liquor-like.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that I may have jumped the gun with Mark-I. Perhaps, the ideal process was what I originally had in mind – a two-week aging cycle with a partially-moist barrel, followed by a good drying. These two experiments weren’t failures by any stretch, but not complete successes, either.

Oh well, if at first you don’t succeed…

drink and drink

Drink and drink again.