Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

Month: May 2011

Smoked Lapsang Porter – A (Manly) Tea-Beer Experiment

Back in April, a few of us in the Tea Twitterverse bestowed the rank of “manliest tea” (oft-considered a contradiction) on Lapsang Souchong. We even postulated on effects said smoked tea had on the unwitting imbiber. The Chuck Norissian dialogue that ensued was also the source of inspiration for my first foray into “tea fiction” – The Legend of Lapsang. I won’t pretend it was a good story by any manly measure, but it got the point across.

Lapsang Souchong – in Fukienese, “smoky sub-variety” – is a black tea from Mount Wuyi, Fujian province, China. The region is mostly known for producing high-grade, high-altitude oolongs. The black tea is made from the “Bohea” leaf cultivar, but its true uniqueness comes from the way it’s processed during drying. There are several origin stories of how this technique came about; whichever one is true, the effect is the same. The tea leaves are placed on pinewood fires and smoked. The result is a tea with a smell of hickory and a taste of campfire. In short, a very MANLY taste…but enough of the Tea 101.

I was inspired by a post made by the “teaviants” over at The Tea Blag to do an experiment with Lapsang Souchong and alcohol – my fifth of this sort. I had fused tea concentrates with beer on a few occasions and even wrote about two of the most successful attempts. I’m not sure what brought about this brainfart, but it was high-time to do another. For this round, I meant to combine a smoked porter with the infamous smoked tea.

Finding the beer I needed didn’t take long thanks to the Almighty Google. Stone Brewing was an op out of my old haunt of San Diego, CA. I never visited their actual HQ, but their products were quite known to me – particularly the delicious Arrogant Bastard ale. Among their wares was a Smoked Porter, and they described it as, “dark, smooth and complex, with rich chocolate and coffee flavors balanced by a subtle smokiness.” Sounded like a perfect match for what I had in mind.

I brewed the concentrate like I always did for tea-beers and/or iced tea – 2 tsp. worth of leaves in 8oz of water, Russian zavarka-style. The porter was kept on ice until the tea had about five minutes of steep under its leather-scented belt. It didn’t quite darken as much as I thought it would; Lapsang Souchong usually took on the color of crimson and “quantum singularity”. One could see their soul practically disappear into the brew. I wondered if it’d be strong enough to handle the porter.

Lastly, I whipped out a pint glass and poured the Stone Smoked Porter into half of it. When the tea was done fermenting its death brew, I plopped my ailing/aging Teavana steeper cup above the pint glass to drain. (Sidenote: That very steeper committed seppuku a week later.) Alchemy commenced as the contents collided. The void-black liquor didn’t water down or dissipate at all on splashdown. It was like staring into an alcoholic abyss.

To my surprise, the mixture didn’t bubble up on contact like with other tea-beer fusions. The porter’s foamy head remained as thick and even as it had before the tea inclusion. The concoction did threaten to envelop the spoon I used to stir the drink o’ damnation. I felt like an apothecary over a cauldron in some long-winded sci-fantasy novel.

Now, to taste…

The first thing I noticed when I put lips to glass was how lukewarm it was. Tea-beer experiences of past attempts yielded a brew with an average temperature of 150F-160F. That was one of the best parts of the combination, a warm beer that was still foamy and nowhere-near-flat. While this certainly wasn’t flat, it was maybe room temperature at best. Not exactly a bad thing. Dark beers were great at room temperature.

Secondly, the palette and palate; it was as black as night. I expected the porter to dominate the tea addition by a fair margin. Holy Hell, was I ever wrong! The mahogany, robust chocolaty notes of the porter were present only – and I do mean, only – on the initial sip. The rest – from top note to finish – tasted like charcoal, brimstone aftermath, death-by-Armageddon, post-war campfire, and nuclear fallout…with a floral finish.

I cocked an eyebrow, then the other. I think I twitched a little. My throat felt cold “burning”. The sensation trailed down to my stomach. Gurgling could be heard and felt. Some semblance of unrest was a-brewing deep within my abdomen. I pictured smoke-billowing hellhounds wreaking havoc on my intestines. I asked myself, Do I need to take a dump?

Before answering the questionable call of the wild, I coaxed my brother into trying the hellish hybrid. He sipped, he pursed his lips, and he pondered. Then he froze.

“It tastes like…ash,” he said flatly.

And after that second opinion, I entertained the “number two” that demanded my immediate attention. Once that was done, I came to the conclusion that this was perhaps too much manliness for one drink to possess. Either that or my sensibilities were far too delicate to handle the sheer potency of so firestormy a fusion. From a connoisseur’s critical tongue, it tasted awful. From a testosteronal standpoint, it was a necessary trial by fire.

I will say this. After finishing the last of the pint, I did feel like I could wrestle a bear. Unfortunately, one was not present. There was, however, a Saint Bernard puppy nearby. Close enough.

From Opium to Oolong – Tea from Thailand

When I thought of Thailand in terms of tea, the only ones that came to mind were Thai sweet tea and Boba (or “bubble”) tea. The former of which was a glass of sugar with a little bit of tea in it;  the latter I hated beyond measure. (Tapioca belonged in pudding…not tea.) As a result, it was easy to dismiss Thai tea culture as something only spoken of in giggle-fitted whispers.

A travel blog posted by Leafjoy corrected my preconceived notions by relating a rather interesting story. Apparently, in Northern Thailand – a place that’d become a tribal melting pot – they grew their own tea. Chiang Rai province was infamous for it’s old cash crop standby – poppies, the primary ingredient for opium. That had since changed to more orthodox offerings such as fruit and tea plants. The entry arched my “Tea WANT!” eyebrow. I hate it when it arches.

Courtesy of Leafjoy.com

I figured that acquiring some in recent months would be a distant and unlikely possibility, but serendipity had other things in store. On my Smith Teamaker jaunt to pick up the new Mao Feng Gin, I ran into Steven Smith himself.

“I have something you have to try,” he said.

He brought out a green bag adorned in Asiatic lettering and poured out some blue-green, balled oolong-ish leaves. The “blue tea” – as he called it – was given to him as a sample from a business contact in Canada. Said contact was curious if Smith wanted to carry it. In turn, he was curious what I thought of it. Neither of us were quite sure what the “blue tea” moniker meant, though. Steven also didn’t have any other details for me other than the tea itself and the growing region (Doi Tung). I thanked him profusely and went home to do a little digging and brewing.

The blue tea search left me quite stumped, however. I could find no mention of blue tea other than a listing on the Mariage Frères site for an “Opium Hill” tea. It looked the same as the sample I received from Smith. Unfortunately, their information on it – other than being of Thai origin – was sparse.

Dejected, I did what any tea geek would do in that situation. I turned to a more well-versed and aptly-named Tea Geek. He informed me that blue tea (or “qingcha”) was another given name for wulong/oolong. It was a blanket category for all semi-oxidized teas because of the blue-ish hue they take on after drying. It was a bit of a misnomer, much like the Western “black tea” label.

The leaves for this were “tricksy” in their appearance. On sight alone, they looked like any normal green-style oolong I came across. The semi-oxidized, blue-green color, and the ball-fisted rolling technique were not too different from Chinese or Taiwanese oolongs. If I didn’t know any better, I would say I was looking at a Bai Hao/Oriental Beauty – a light-roasted one at that. What informed me that I was dealing with something completely different was the aroma. I smelled berries; rather, three distinct ones – strawberries, grapes, and blueberries – fused together. It was like wrapping a Fruit Roll-Up around one’s nose.

Given the entirely new experience on sight and smell, there was no specific brewing template to go by. A good default with an aromatic, light-roasted oolong was multiple infusions in a gaiwan with 190F water. Basically, gongfu-style but less formal. I did exactly that with four steeps – two at thirty seconds, two at forty – 1 tsp. worth of leaf-balls.

First infusion (thirty seconds): I’ll be honest, it sorta smelled like pondwater. The liquor also looked river-green. The taste, however – while possessing a vegetal forefront – transitioned  to a wonderfully floral body and a subtle fruit finish.

Second infusion (thirty seconds): This time the liquor took on a brighter color and a more aromatic scent – buttery like lotus blossoms. The floral character also echoed in the taste but with something more akin to jasmine. That could’ve been the somewhat dry forefront. The mid-body was more melon-like this time, very even in comparison to the first. What little aftertaste there was passed by with a smooth texture.

Third infusion (forty seconds): Same visual palette but with an indiscernible nose. It was neither an earthy or floral scent but rather something “clean”. In sharp contrast, the taste took on the berry notes I detected in the dry, fisted leaves. Very prevalent in the middle. Again, the aftertaste tapered off pleasantly.

Fourth infusion (forty seconds): The liquor color had lightened significantly to a pale yellow, more in line with some spring flush green teas. The taste still had plenty to offer, though. It alternated between fruity, creamy and floral – like a grape that’d been dipped in honey-vanilla and wrapped in petals for warmth. The finish possessed more of a vegetal kick, signifying that it was almost at the end of its yield.

This Thai goodie didn’t fade, though, until about infusion #7, much to my surprise. The flavor remained pretty even throughout, no major detractions from its original smoothness. That and it never took on the metallic astringency of an over-brewed Ti Kwan Yin.

While the initial steam aroma was off-putting on the first infusion, this was a very reliable introductory oolong. I’m not sure it would hold up in a taste-test against a good Wu Yi or Ali Shan, but right out of the starting gate, I’d say Thailand is off to a damn good start. This was the Shiraz of oolongs.

Special Thanks to:

Smith Teamaker – For providing the sample, and for terrific tea talk. I always feel at home there.

Michael J. Coffey (purveyor of TeaGeek.net) – For having the world’s most magnificently ironic name ever, and for clearing up the “blue” debacle. He’s a fountain of tea knowledge.

Leafjoy – For their informative tea blog and for giving me permission to use one of their photographs.

Mao Feng Gin

Smith Teamaker is slowly becoming my Cheers. It’s the place I go where my name is known, where I’m greeted with a smile, and share a witticism or two about/over tea. It’s a bit of a jaunt from my little ‘burb but worthwhile every time. On one such stop through, I made it a point to try out their Bai Hao Oolong and see if they could answer a pressing question. (“Was Bai Hao Oolong from Taiwan or Fujian Province, China? Seriously, the question’d been bugging me for months.)

I asked the taster room hostess if she knew the answer to my Bai Hao dilemma. She didn’t, but she retreated to the back to talk to one of their master blenders – Tony Tellin. I’d had conversations with Tony before. Great guy. I owe my oolong graduation – from mug to gaiwan – to him. Changed my brewing life, that little lidded cup did. But anyway…

He came out and immediately sidetracked my train of thought with an announcement. A new gin-infused prototype tea was ready. A couple of months back, he allowed me to sample a test-run of some Ti Kwan “Gin” – an oolong soaked in Tanqueray gin for an extended period of time, then re-dried. (My impression of that can be found HERE.) I loved the stuff and found that the natural floral/mineral foretaste complimented the newly-juniper’d body. Tony still felt that the winy top note wasn’t strong enough. Further experimenting was needed.

This time around, he played around with some Mao Feng green tea dipped in Sapphire gin. I assumed he was referring to Bombay Sapphire, but I’m not a gin connoisseur by any stretch. He brewed me a pot, while I smelled the bag. Oh boy, was it stronger on the nostrils than the oolong test! The taste was also stronger. The usual nutty/vegetal front was almost immediately pushed aside by a jolting juniper berry note that lasted to a tapered finish.

While I sampled that, my aforementioned Bai Hao, and later a pot of 1st Flush Darjeeling, he answered my initial query about Taiwanese/Chinese confusion. Bai Hao was Taiwanese, and the Chinese version used Taiwanese techniques. Relieved, enlightened and in dire need of…a different kind of relieving, I made my exit soon after.

Word came over the Twitter pipeline a week later that the final Mao Feng Gin was ready. I had just ended a rather trying day of errand-running, and a hot pot o’ tea sounded like the perfect decompressor. The drive was relatively painless, and I was there in no time for a pre-funk pot o’ Darjeeling. Tony came out a moment later with a 1oz. bag – a warm bag at that. This stuff was literally “hot off the press”. He told me to wait about four hours before sampling it.

I tore into it the next day.

The dry leaves were long, curly and dark green like a standard Mao Feng. The differences on sight were subtle. A part of me thought the leaves were a darker palette than their usual un-“ginned” counterparts; like those included in Smith’s own Mao Feng Shui. The true difference came in the smell. Gin has a very pungent aroma that screams juniper berries and gasoline, and some of that was present in the aroma. First whiff revealed a prologue of buttered/salted veggies but – like the prototype – was immediately pushed aside by a straight juniper-ish tang. It was also a surprisingly damp scent.

I wasn’t quite sure of the best way to brew this. I referred to Smith’s instructions for the Mao Feng Shui as a springboard. They recommended a three-minute steep in 190F water. That seemed a bit high of a temperature, but other Mao Feng brew tips echoed their notes. Even I dared steeps at 180F with Mao Fengs of yesterbrew. I stuck to their approach to the letter – 1 tsp worth in 8oz.

The liquor infused to a pale green with a leafy and berry-ish nose. Unlike with the prototype, it didn’t have the immediate vegetal kick on first sip. The juniper note also didn’t bust the door down, berry guns blazing. Instead, it was smooth yet grassy before transitioning into a citrus-berry-sweet body. The finish possessed an unusual texture – equal parts creamy and swift. In comparison to the Mao Feng Shui, I would have to say I enjoyed this more. The addition of a juniper berry/lemony note gave it a character I found similar to an early spring Long Jing with a hint of lemongrass and almonds. A second infusion brewed up quite well in color, but didn’t have as strong of a gin presence except in the aftertaste; still quite enjoyable, though.

This marks the third of Tony’s gin-infused experiments I’ve tried in a two-month period. While the Ti Kwan “Gin” idea was discarded – and I lament it – I can see how Mao Feng was the stronger candidate. It was a lighter green tea that could easily be improved upon. Mao Feng-style greens were never my favorite; too vegetal for my tastes. But the additional gin-basting gave it that extra oomph to push it into Long Jing/tamaryokucha favorability. I look forward to whatever Tony concocts next.

I’m holding out hope for a Bai Hao Oolong/Gewürztraminer pairing, but that’s just me.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén

Skip to toolbar