Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

Month: December 2013

Deck the Halls with Balhyocha

T’was the night before Christmas,

And all through the flat,

Every creature was stirring

Because of my hungry cat.

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For the last couple of weeks,

I was feeling humbuggish.

But I awoke with a streak…

If a little bit sluggish.

 Slug

After running some errands

For the night’s holiday supper.

I thought to myself,

Man, I need an upper.

Tweak 

I looked over my stores

Of leaf-delivered caffeine,

And decided I would gorge

With a Korean-ish lean.

Miss A

There were two balhyochas

That demanded my attention.

A couple of oddi-“teas”

That I never did mention.

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Were they oolong or black tea…

Or something in-between?

According to one Mr. Gebely,

There was no “kill green”.

 killing vegetables

This meant that they were

Their own unique beast.

The perfect sort of purr

Or prologue to a feast.

 waiting

MLH” was the first,

Noeul” was the second.

They smelled of quenched thirst –

Of almonds a-beckoned.

sexy peanut

I used a green tea-ish temp

And a minute for the steep.

Their aromas did tempt

My body away from sleep.

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Both were minty to the taste

With hints of nuts on the trail.

I didn’t drink with much haste,

But they were finished without fail.

 horse trough

Was there a difference to be seen,

Between the balhyocha brethren?

None that I could glean

That is worthy of mention.

 twins

They were wonderful together

When sipped side-by-side.

And as light-bodied as a feather…

(Okay, I lied.)

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There are far worse ways

To get into the feeling

Of these stupid holidays

That send your mind reeling.

jackie

I will sip away my night

Until X-Mas is ended.

A chocolate chaser in sight

And a heart newly-mended.

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Balhyocha MLH and Balhyocha Noeul generously provided by the wonderful Canadians over at O5 Tea.

Russian Tea Finds You

I can’t remember when this quest began, but it all started with a random Google search. It was probably in the Fall of 2010, and I ran across an article about Russian tea. What astounded me was that there was mention of Soviet-run tea plantations. That immediately got me digging.

Russia has a long-standing love affair with tea. The country’s rampant consumption of the brew almost rivals Engand, Ireland and Iran combined. I don’t have exact figures; the Russians drank them all. To cater to the demand, government-run plantations were set up in the Dagomys region, near Sochi City, in the Russian krai (federal subject) of Krasnodar. Often considered a tourist spot for the rich, the climate was near-ideal for tea growing – Caucasian sub-tropical.

The tea coming out of the region was dubbed Krasnodarskiy or “Krasnodar Tea”, for short. Or at the very least, that was the first “successful” brand.  For the life of me,  I couldn’t find the stuff anywhere. I found tea plants from the same cultivar from the region. (Seriously, any tea plant you can buy in the U.S. is probably a Sochi cultivar.) But finding the actual, Russian-grown stuff stateside was next to impossible.

I even hit up Russian delis to find out more. Every one of them gave me the same answer, “Oh, you don’t want that tea. Terrible tea. Russians only drink Ceylon.” Well, that was odd.

It was true, though. Russians did have a particular lean toward Sri Lankan-grown teas. I usually assumed all Ceylons were floral – like those from Nuwara Eliya – but it turns out the lower-altitude stuff was actually rather robust. Perfect for the Russian palate.

Another bit of knowledge that didn’t help my quest was hearing that tea production in Dagomys fell into neglect and disrepair after perestroika. Some independent gardens were getting back on their feet, but none were exporting in large quantities. As such, I considered it a futile quest.

Until Tea Trade Jackie happened upon a video about tea production, and how things were picking back up. The reason: The impending Winter Olympics in Sochi City. Yes, yes…I’m well aware of the controversy surrounding that at the moment – not even gonna begin to touch that subject. I was merely intrigued that interest in Russian-grown tea was back on the rise.

So, I put out my feelers again, pining for any leads on Krasnodarskiy. And I turned up…nothing. Flat nothing. Even after putting it at the top of my Tea WANT! List, there were no beads on the brew. I was back to square one.

Until a couple of years later, when I was in Josh “J-TEA” Chamberlain’s Eugene-based tea shop.

As I was downing mass quantities of his aged Baozhong, he asked me, “Hey, have you had any Russian-grown tea?”

My head snapped up, “No, why?”

“Oh, I have some,” he said as an afterthought. “It’s not very good.”

My jaw dropped. In three years of searching, I hadn’t found Russian-grown tea. In three minutes at a teashop, Russian tea found me. Yakov Smirnoff was probably pointing at me. Laughing inwardly.

Josh kindly gave me some to play around with. A few weeks later, I dug in.

The leaves looked like something in between fannings and broken orange pekoe. They were still noticeably…uh…leaf-like, but they were definitely cut small. There were some tippy pieces in the brown fray, as well as some red-tipped ones. On the nose, it smelled like a dusty black tea – similar to a low-altitude Ceylon…in a teabag. Actually, the aroma reminded me of a Shizuoakan kocha (Japanese black tea), which often had a similar leaf-cut.

I wasn’t sure how exactly I should handle this. So, I went with a typical black tea approach (for me) – 1 tsp. in a 6oz. steeper cup with boiled water for three minutes. I wasn’t expecting hearty nuance, but I didn’t want to scald it, either.

The liquor brewed to a deep copper – like, Assam deep – with a very astringent aroma. It smelled like a burly black tea through-and-through, without much in the way of subtlety. All tannins, no temptation. On taste, the first sensation I got was bitterness, followed by a dry underpinning , and finally a malty character peaked through the top note and finish. This was definitely a burly, barrel-chested Russian breakfast of a tea.

After trying it, I can safely say it’s not the worst black tea I’ve had. Nowhere near the best, but not the worst. It’s very middling in its approached. I think cutting the leaves to just shy of BOP standard probably did the final product an injustice, depriving it of some of its natural Caucasian flavor. (Mountains! Caucasian mountains!) A whole leaf approach would’ve given it a fighting chance against other teas from the region – such as the Georgians I’ve tried. All in all, not bad.

Although, next time…I’m doing it out of a samovar.

The Golden “Tea”-cket – A Tandem Tea Tasting

Back in March, when I was visiting The Jasmine Pearl Tea Merchants, I ran across a particularly unusual tea. It was a small brick wrapped in gold foil, bearing an uncanny resemblance to a candy bar. I asked the teatender on duty at the time if I could sample it. She obliged and explained to me that it was a compressed black tea. After steeping for three minutes, she poured me a taster. I’ll be damned if it didn’t taste like the chocolate it resembled. Or at the very least like Yunnan Dian Hong dipped in chocolate.

I bought one.

Gold bar

Upon seeing the photograph, a tea colleague mentioned he recognized the tea. He directed me to a profile on Yunnan Sourcing’s US website. There they were under the heading of Feng Qing Mini Bricks. Well, that didn’t make any sense. I had tried loose Feng Qing before, and that li’l bar was a different sipping experience entirely.

In the ensuing months, I experimented with two more bars. Brewed in 8oz. of water, it was too strong; brewed in a 32oz. pot, it was too light. Infused for 16oz., treated to a Western-style three minute steep or so, it turned out just right – like unsweetened dark chocolate with a leathery Feng Qing kick.

A few months down the line, I thought it would be the perfect tea for my Tandem Tea Taster group. For those who are new to his blog, once every month I participate in a tandem tea tasting via Google+ Hangout. The idea is to try a tea in unison, chat about it, and then do simultaneous blogs on the experience. Thus far, we have done five. I lost count long ago. December was my month to contribute.

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I sent out five of the bars. One to Nicole “Tea For Me Please” Martin, one to Jo “A Gift of Tea/Scandalous Tea” Johnson, one to Rachel “IHeartTeas” Carter, one to Darlene “A Tea Lover’s Archive” Meyers-Perry, and a final one to Julia at Bingley’s Teas. Somewhere down the line, the Feng Qing brick was nicknamed “the Willy Wonka” bar by Darlene.

Wonka

Funny thing was I kinda felt like Wonka passing on a weird experiment and looking for approval. Throughout the planning and mailing process, I was nervous. Would the packages arrive? Would they all like the tea? Would my work schedule get in the way of the tasting? All these questions plagued me for weeks before the event.

Unfortunately, there was a wee bit of Charlie Bucket-ish disappointment. Somehow/someway, a USPS employee had stolen Darlene’s gold brick from the package. The envelope arrived sans golden ticket, and – alas – I didn’t have the money at the time to mail out another one. Jo came to the rescue by splitting her bar with Darlene for the event.

Photo by Darlene Meyers-Perry

Photo by Darlene Meyers-Perry

A week or so prior to tasting, I did some more playing around with one of the extra bricks I possessed. I hadn’t tried “gongfooling” around with it. The brick lasted for nine strong infusions – all more Feng Qing than chocolate. Still wonderful, but – boy! – was I hyper after that taste-test.

Dancing on the ceiling

An hour or two before the Hangout, I informed people to maybe use half the bar instead of all of it. Nicole went ahead and used the whole thing. Rachel (I believe) did as well. Darlene and Jo both did half. (Julia was sadly MIA for the tasting due to her son’s concert event.) Everybody’s results were different. While my gongfu approaches yielded some strong brews, Jo commented that hers were on the light side. Nicole echoed those thoughts as well. Rachel was busy multitasking between sipping and keeping her daughter – who also wanted to try it – at bay. And Darlene…

Well, she looked like this the entire time.

charlie

The general consensus was that the bricks did – indeed – have chocolaty notes as I originally purported. Conversations ranged from Bollywood movies, other different teas, our mutual reluctances to attend World Tea Expo 2014, and future blog rants. Rachel’s “bebeh” – Ethan ASOM!!! Carter – also made a cameo. He’s sorta becoming the Tandem Tea Tasting mascot. The evening was more low-key than tastings prior. My guess is that we were all tea-stoned rather than tea-drunk, but that’s merely conjecture.

gongfool

Nicole “tea”-sed us about January’s offering – a bunch of unique teas hailing from Nilgiri. One of them was a white tea. I just about jumped out of my seat. We parted ways at the two-hour mark. Still pretty lengthy considering the chillaxed gathering.

I blame the actual chocolate I paired with my tea.

Chocolate

And because of said tea, I didn’t get to bed until 5AM. All wily-haired and wired.

Willy Wonka bar, indeed.

Photo by Jo Johnson

Photo by Jo Johnson

For Nicole’s take, go HERE.

For Jo’s take, go HERE.

For Rachel’s take, go HERE.

For Darlene’s take, go HERE.

Oolong for the Old Otaku

I have always had a fascination with Japan for as long as I can remember. The first seeds of wonder were planted by early-80s dubbings of Robotech, and continued on well into my teens and twenties with samurai films galore. One could even say my otaku (read: fanboy) brain was hardwired to like everything Japanese from the get-go. So, why did it take me so darn long to like Japanese teas?

The first sencha I ever tried was from a coffee shop in San Francisco. This was early on in my tea exploration – 2005-ish – and I was just getting used to the different regions. I had no idea where sencha came from, or where it fit in the green tea hierarchy. My cousin suggested it, and I bought a 12oz. cup. And I hated it. Every spinachy sip of it.

popeye-spinach

It wasn’t until years later that I learned the asshats at said coffee shop had used boiling water, and that sencha required the lightest possible heat setting – like “white tea” light, no more than 160F. Unfortunately, that experience turned me off of sencha for a period of years.

Then I met Ms. Gyokuro.

Talk about life-changing. It was like watching Robotech in my mouth. An epically different experience than I’d had with other green teas. Of course, I also learned that it was considered the green tea from Japan. Highest grade and all. But then I met her wilder sister, Tamaryokucha.

Hard to describe tamaryokucha, but I’ll try. It’s like someone took all the rules to sencha, and threw them out the window. The type didn’t just convince me that I could actually like sencha, but actually opened me up to exploring more. Through that, I encountered many of the weird experiments being done with tea by the Japanese. And I’m all about the experiments.

Wuv

Okay…maybe not all the experiments.

After going down the windy, surreal road that is Japanese tea, there was one thing that always irked me. Why were all Japanese teas green? No blacks, oolongs, whites, or anything else; just different shades of green. Granted, I liked a good percentage of the tea-speriments out there, but where were the others?

It wasn’t until I encountered my first Japanese black tea that I learned why. Japan had tried making a go of black tea production roughly two hundred years ago, but they could never produce at the same level (or at the same cost) as neighboring competitors like Sri Lanka (Ceylon). Plus, the quality of the product was not as up to par. I can attest to that. Of the three-ish Japanese kocha (black tea) I sampled, I liked about half.

Somewhere down the line, though, I learned of the existence of hand-crafted Japanese oolongs. Not sure when I ran into it or how, but that instantly grabbed my attention. That in turn led me to contacting an outfit called Yunomi.us.

I knew of (and talked to) Ian Chun of Matcha Latte Media before. His du-“tea” prior to Yunomi.us was setting up online stores for various Japanese tea farmers. Yunomi.us was a bit of a different beast because it was modeled as a collective marketplace for Japanese teas and teaware. Instead of independently-run, un-connected sites, different tea farms were listed under one umbrella. Similar to Tealet but focusing exclusively on Japanese wares (or so I surmised).

Yumoni.us graciously sent me three Japanese oolongs to try. Two from the Kaneban Higuchi Tea Factory in Asamiya, Shiga Prefecture…and one from the Takeo tea farming family.

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Unfortunately, I didn’t get to brewing them until six months after receiving them. Not sure why I waited so long, especially given the results.

Higuchi #1: Blue Oolong Tea

The leaves looked and smelled like no oolong I’d ever seen. The cut was similar to a curly-style sencha, but with flakier, leafy bits. And the color palette was like a Japanese kocha. The aroma was even more bizarre – something like mint and sweet rice.

Brewing instructions on the site recommended 90C water (190-ish F, roughly) and a five-minute steep. I used 1 teaspoon of leaves in a gaiwan, and did just that. Five minutes seemed like a long time, but…might as well try it there way first, I thought.

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The liquor brewed up to a beautiful brass-to-dark-amber color with an aroma that was both dry and sweet. On taste, several things were at play. When the liquid first hit the tongue, a nutty and tingling sensation occurred. Never had that happen before. In the middle, there was a tad bit of roastiness but not much. A mineral lean as well toward the top note, typical of an oolong. By the finish, it rested on its laurels with a mild but welcoming astringency. As if to remind me, Yes, this is still tea.

Only on the aftertaste did it remind me a tad of other Japanese teas I’d tried. It even lasted a good, medium bodied second steep.

Higuchi #2: Black Oolong Tea

The leaves looked exactly like the Higuchi Blue Oolong, but the smell was quite a different experience entirely. There were hints of brown rice and unfiltered sake – sweet, nutty, a little woodsy and a hint of vanilla. In short, I had no idea what I was dealing with.

I brewed this up the same way I did the Blue Oolong. One would think that something with a “black” label would brew up darker. Not the case here. The liquor for this oolong was a shade or two lighter than its blue sibling. But that may have been my brewing technique…or lack thereof.

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The area where this tea differed was…everywhere else. The aroma was malty, along with the requisite nuttiness I found in the Blue. Taste-wise, astringency was the first thing to crop up, followed by a strange mélange of almonds, roastiness, malt, and an odd feeling like I was tasting green tea. This was closer to a Japanese black tea than an oolong, but it definitely pulled back before going all “kocha” on me. Still a very pleasant cup.

A second steep at a shorter steep time produced a crisper brew.

Takeo Family Organic Oolong Tea

This was different than the Higuchi stuff by sheer sight alone. The leaves were longer, curlier, and their aroma – while still nutty in that Japanese way – had a little more going on. The fragrance was – oddly enough – like a Dong Ding. To me, anyway. I wondered if these were hand-rolled as opposed to machine cut.

Brewing instructions for this oolong differed considerably. The tea profile recommended a steep of two minutes in 176F-ish water. An approach more in line with a pan-fired green tea.

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The liquor infused to a vibrant copper. The aroma resembled a straight OP, slightly astringent but full-bodied, like an autumnal Darjeeling. As for taste – oh my word, the taste! – it was an oolong in all the best possible ways. Sure, there were some aspects of it that were truly Japanese. (You can definitely taste the region.) I want to say there was a hint of muscatel toward the middle. While most of it reminded me of a lowland, medium-roast Taiwanese oolong – at least on introduction – the rest reminded me of a Darjeeling oolong. Spry, ornery, but oddly refined. Definitely my favorite oolong of the bunch.

While the experimentation of semi-oxdized teas is new in Japan. It is my ne’er-do-well opinion that they’re on the right track. Some refinement of artistry is in order, for certain, but the efforts on display speak for themselves. It was a nice change to encounter a Japanese tea that I instantly liked as much as anime.

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Of course, that’s probably the old otaku in me talking.

Or would that be o-“cha”-ku?

tanaka

 

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