Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

Month: May 2014

Dating, Darjeeling, and Drought

This might come as a big shock to a lot of you, but I don’t do a lot of dating.

 

For the record, it’s mostly my fault. I don’t put much effort into looking, and I’m in no real hurry to start. That and I’m perpetually broke, I don’t take wonderful care of myself, nor do I cultivate a personality oozing of confidence. And – like my tea palate – I’m insanely picky. That said, a drought is still a drought.

If one were reaching, they could even compare it to the recent scourge of waterlessness that struck Darjeeling earlier this year. According to this article posted by Happy Earth Tea, areas of Darjeeling saw their usual yields cut in half by the absence of rainfall. Darjeeling East fared better than most, but a lot of tea estates in the region saw their production cut significantly by the chronically dry weather. The result? Less Darjeeling to go around at a far higher price.

I even saw many a Darjeeling estate director express “water from their eyes” at the lack of “water from the skies”.

Poetic, really. Darjeeling wasn’t alone. Assam saw a similar lack of precipitation, as did my beloved Doke Estate in Bihar. Plans for certain teas were altogether discarded from many due to the lack of leaf abundance.

As a result, I wasn’t expecting to see any of this year’s Darjeeling yields pass by my cup. After 2013’s underwhelming second flushes, I wasn’t too disappointed. Oh, how wrong I was.

In the span of a week after reading that article, Happy Earth Tea informed me that 2014 First Flush samples were heading toward me. As far as Darjeelings went, first flushes were typically my favorite. However, I was expecting more of the same from this year’s batch – spice, faint muscatel notes and nuts. Again…I was wrong. Twice in row.

I already did TeaCuplets for Happy Earth’s Singbulli and Arya Ruby first flushes, respectively. Not only was I blown away, but I actually had to say that these were the best first flushes I ever had. Even better than my favorite year – 2011.

So, what does this have to do with dating, and why did I deem it necessary to do a blog on two disparate subject matters? I’m getting to that. Chill, dudes/dudettes.

This last week, I was moving on to my third Darjeeling in the new Happy Earth Tea retinue – their 2014 Puttabong.

 

This was a tea estate I had no strong feelings about. I’d had teas from their I liked, and others that I didn’t care for as much. So far, my palate was “take-it/leave-it”. Although, I always giggled when I heard the name. Kinda reminded me of a certain bit of drug paraphernalia.

(Note: No, I was not going to post a picture of a bong.)

The first time I brewed it up, I wasn’t paying too much attention to technique. I over-boiled some water, prepped two scoops of leaves, dumped them in a strainer, poured water into a travel mug, guesstimated three-ish minutes, then left for work. As I drank it on my drive, something tasted…off. I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Sure, the nuts and spices were there in the taste, but there was also a great deal of astringency. As the water cooled down, that chalk-like feeling on the tongue grew stronger. There was only one conclusion I could come to: I had over-brewed it. Damn, that was a bad omen. A bad first cup of tea meant a bad rest-of-the-day.

As I stepped through the door, though…something magical happened.

 

Between two departmental managers was a woman I hadn’t seen before. She was tall, slender (in a willowy sort of way) with shoulder-length curly brown hair. She had an ivory complexion, a cute button nose, and medium-to-full lips. It was like she’d stepped off of a Jane Austen novel jacket. The assistant manager had told me they’d recently hired someone who was a British ex-pat, but nothing prepared me for this.

She introduced herself; I returned the favor – albeit clumsily. Then I went off to start my tasks. All the while humming songs from Disney’s Robin Hood for some reason. Okay, I knew the reason. Her original home just happened to be a place made popular by Robin Hood lore. That’s all I’m going to say on the subject.

 

A few hours later, as I was in the middle of cleaning a toilet (yes, I do that)…she approached me.

“I hear you’re a tea drinker,” she said with grace, “I would love to talk to you about that some time.”

“Oh yes, quite into it,” I said, still scrubbing the rim of the bowl. “The first flush Darjeelings are great this year.”

She laughed. It was the greatest sound in the world at that moment.

“Oh wow!” she exclaimed, seemingly impressed. “You’re really into it.”

“Uh-yep.” I said shortly. Then went back to scrubbing. Yep, still got it, I said to myself sarcastically.

Later on, I worked up the nerve to talk to her again, after she waved and smiled at me.

“So…” I had no idea how to ‘open’, so I went with, “What was in your cup this morning?”

“Oh, I had an iced coffee.”

My heart sank.

It was never meant to be.

I went home and revisited that ol’ Puttabong sample. I still possessed the spent leaves from the earlier brew. This time, I took more care in the brewing – three-minute steep. The results were…pure palatial poetry.

 

I tasted straight grapes. No, not a hint of muscatel…or whatever crap taster notes people associate with Darjeelings. Far bolder than that. This was transcendent of wine grapes – it was sweet, kind, welcoming, warm – kind of like the laughter of…oh…

And then I understood.

Like with the Puttabong, my first impression of British Girl was one of high expectations and fantasies. It wasn’t until a second impression that those unrealistic notions were completely dispelled and surpassed! Sure, my palate is picky, but it also admits when it’s wrong. After all, there was a time when I didn’t even like Darjeelings – sad but true.

The next day, British Girl and I had a few tasks to work on together. We talked, she laughed at my dumb jokes, and her smile always lingered just a bit longer than necessary. I could’ve listened to her laugh all day. When my shift ended, I even stuck around for an extra ten minutes just to hear her talk some more.

Eventually, I did pry myself away from work and return home. A couple of hours in, I brewed up some more Puttabong. It was like a fond, lingering smile in my cup.

Perhaps the drought has ended.

Gongfooling Around with Charcoal and Bourbon

Imagine my [NOT] surprise when I saw this on J-TEA’s Facebook one day a couple of months back.

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A brand-spankin’ new Buffalo Trace bourbon barrel from Kentucky.

Okay, perhaps a little background is in order. Back in December, I wrote about a new bourbon barrel-aged pu-erh put out by Eugene-based tea company – J-Tea International. I, quite accidentally, had a hand in its origin story. It was a fantastic tea, and I’m not just saying that out of native bias.

Josh Chamberlain, the shop’s owner, had mentioned wanting to do another tea at some point, but I had no clue it would be so soon. The barrel victim this time around was a mid-to-heavy charcoal-roasted Taiwanese oolong dubbed Charcoal Dawn. And I had no idea how well that would work. My mind couldn’t even comprehend it…and that’s saying something.

This month – May, to you later readers – I was able to acquire some. The package arrived after a period of time that I can only call a “sub-era of suck”. However, once this arrived, everything seemed – I dunno – possible again. Booze-flavored anything has that effect on me.

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I immediately demanded scissors from my family members/roommates to tear open the bag. They were unbecoming (and unmoving), so I found ‘em myself and dug in. The first thing I did was just…smell. Roasty notes came first, followed by this wonderful peaty afterglow. Er…if smells could glow, that is.

As for leaf appearance, it – well – looked like a roasted oolong. Ball-fisted leaves of dark greens and blues. Not much more to say than that. So, I went back to sniffing the bag again. And again.

I stopped eventually.

For brewing, I went with an approach that Josh and I had come to call “gongfool”. It’s kinda like gongfu…but you completely negate whatever credibility can be garnered from the original technique. In its stead, you basically “bro” it. Steep how you want, whatever works – at your leisure – in a fashion similar to gongfu.

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The first three thirty-second-ish infusions resulted in amber liquors that didn’t vary in appearance or aroma. What differences could be noticed were found in taste. And – holy balls – was there a taste. As I said, this was a roasted oolong – a charcoal-roasted one, no less. That was obviously going to take point in taste, and it did with a wallop. But then a strange thing happened.

It gentled out into this nice, shot-glass sized note of soft single malt Scotch. Like someone had just punched me in the face, then sat me down with a cigar and a shot glass. Each infusion was like this. Charcoal wallop, whiskey afterburner. Like…uh…a friggin’ jet!

I’m cuing up Kenny Loggins, right friggin’ now.

After a few minutes reveling, drinking, guffawing…and reveling some more, I finally dared a Western-ish style steep of the stuff.

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It was all smoke and peat at that point. Mostly smoke. Like you accidentally spilled whiskey in a stove, then tried to lick it up afterwards. Still awesome, but the gongfoolish approach is the way to go.

In closing, is it as strong on the bourbon as the previous pu-erh attempt ? No. Whereas the liquor grabbed the lead on the fermented tea, here the tea flavor went in first. The liquor notes were the wingmen. And what welcomed wingmen they were.

This tea would make sure you didn’t go home with the wrong woman. Or man. Or both. Tea doesn’t judge.

The Zen of Using Yuzu

According to the Almighty Wiki, yuzu is a citrus fruit native to East Asia, which may be a hybrid between sour mandarin oranges and Ichang papeda (whatever that is).

Yuzu

I first learned of its existence when “researching” Korean jarred teas. Sometimes, yuzu was used as an ingredient – along with honey – to create a jelly-like tisane. Since the odd li’l citrus fruit was frightfully aromatic, the flavor came through rather well.

A couple of years later, I ran into a tamaryokucha (read: curly sencha) that was blended with yuzu rind. Alas, I never had the money to buy it. But the idea of a yuzu-blended anything occupied a bit of synaptic real estate in my brain. I figured, if it was anything like an Earl Grey, I’d like it.

Fast-forward another year or so, the owners of one of my favorite tea haunts – The Jasmine Pearl Tea Merchants – paid a visit to Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan. A grower there passed along several of his wares for sale. I even featured three of his senchas in my first ever TeaCuplets entry.

However, his green teas weren’t the only thing he passed on.

The owners also brought back a black tea blend created by the grower – one blended with yuzu rind. Upon tasting it, they – and those that worked for them – exclaimed, “Oh yeah, we’re gonna need more of this!”

The story behind the blend goes as thus: On the tea farm owned by this Shizuokan grower, there is a solitary yuzu tree. It was planted by his ancestors several hundred years ago. Said grower used the fruit from that one tree, ground up the rind, then blended and scented a batch of kocha (Japanese black tea) with it. The results (apparently) were magic.

When I learned all of this, I had actually come into The Jasmine Pearl for my usual standby – their Earl Grey. When the teashop girl on duty told me about this, though, I immediately demanded a cup. A large cup.

yuzu big cup

 

I proceeded to nurse three servings of the stuff over the next two hours.

A week or so went by, and I couldn’t get the tea out of my head. It was like an Earl Grey…but for samurai. I could seriously see a bunch of swordsmen in kendo gear drinking this prior to sparring. It was very much a Zen Earl Grey.

Which made me wonder…

On a second visit to the Pearl, I asked for the Yuzu Black iced. It was a hot enough day, I could totally justify it.

iced yuzu

I expected some sort of flavor loss – less rind in the taster notes and such – but the exact opposite occurred. The citrus presence was even stronger than before. Even further cementing my earlier Earl Grey comparison.

Another week went by, and I sampled many other teas from many other sources. But thoughts of yuzu still danced in my tiny brain. I had just finished a 93-hour, two-week pay period, and I was exhausted. However, the results of that labor showed on the paycheck. I had a little bit of extra money in my jeans.

I did two things: One, I purchased a U.S.-grown white tea I’d been eyeing. And two, I finally picked up a couple of ounces of the Yuzu Black for home use. Every few days or so, between my usual morning bouts of eso-“tea”-rica, I eye the bag.

Then I get to brewing.

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Earl Grey, I think you have a challenger, and he’s armed with a katana and a teacup.

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My Day as a Warrior Tiger Monk

I was first contacted by Temple Road Tea back in late-March. They were a relatively new outfit specializing in Taiwanese high mountain oolongs. The foremost oolong they wanted me to yack about was their Tiger Monk Roasted Oolong. My first inclination was to decline because…roasted oolongs weren’t really my thing. That and I really didn’t have anything specific to talk about regarding them.

However, the description of this particular oolong caught my eye. As per the product notes, they said the name was inspired by the Warrior Tiger Monks of millennia old martial arts traditions. Frankly, I’d never heard of Warrior Tiger Monks before. The only thing I knew about tiger-related martial arts were what I learned from Kung Fu Panda.

 In other words, not much.

All I knew is that I started picturing myself as a warrior monk in tiger-skin robes – leaping from tree to tree – felling enemies with my deadly claw-slings! Okay, those probably weren’t actual weapons back then, but I saw something similar in Kung Pow: Enter the Fist…so, it’s totally relevant.

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That aside, the fact that this was a triple-roasted, medium-oxidized oolong really sold it. I was in – hook, line, and cupper. A week or so later, I received it.

The package was already made of WIN. The oolong was vacuum-sealed in gold foil with a golden label. If anything could bring out my inner Charlie Bucket – besides being poor – that was it.

golden ticket

The leaves were the standard brown, ball-fisted oolong fair, but with an aroma of hickory, charcoal and chocolate. It honestly reminded me of a medium-roast Dong Ding on first impression. The nuttiness toward the end of the whiff also added to that. It was a very pleasant, warming smell.

Temple Road Tea recommended brewing 3 grams of leaves (roughly a teaspoon) in a 200ml pot of boiled water. I was a little dicey with this, so I opted for a gongfu-ish approach instead. Thirty-to-forty-second infusions each.

gongfu

The liquor for the gongfu approach came out green on all three steeps I tried for. The roastiness was also similar with each infusion. They only differed in intensity. Subsequent steeps developed more depth in flavor – more toasted nut notes further down the line. All very Dong Ding-ish, save for a creamy texture on the finish.

After (not much) inner deliberation, I finally decided to chance the six-minute steep on another go-around with fresh leaves. I dipped a teaspoon of leaves in boiled water in a gaiwan…and waited. Kinda prayed that I hadn’t blown it, too.

The results were…

six minutes

Oh my.

The liquor brewed a lovely, bold amber with a requisite roasty aroma that wafted from the cup in plumes. Taste-wise, it was like buckwheat, Ali Shan and a Buddhist prayer all rolled into one. Seriously, I hadn’t quite experienced that effect with a roasted oolong before. Tea drunkenness hit after one sip. Imagine how I looked after five.

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Later on that day – for monks and giggles – I took the spent leaves from both brew attempts, and stuck ‘em in a pot. I was almost ready to take a nap and needed an evening upper. I boiled some fresh water and poured it over the already-used leaves. Both rounds still had plenty of flavors to grant. Roasted stubbornness personified.

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Charlie Sheen, I think I found your tiger’s blood source.

I don’t care how dated that pop-culture reference is. Totally relevant here.

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