Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

Month: January 2015

Fujian Face-Off! Lapsang Souchong Vs. Jin Jun Mei

I think I’ve made my point rather clear that I love Lapsang Souchong. Many of my blogs here, or on my manlier Devotea-backed side-project – Beasts of Brewdom – have extolled its virtues (and lack of subtlety). Maybe it was the campfire taste, or the trail of forest-fire it left on my tongue in its wake. Whatever the reason, it appealed to a side of me that – while small – was wholly testosteronal. Imagine my dismay when, after reading a blog by the estimable Austin Hodge, I learned that the pinewood-smoked black tea . . . was an endangered species.

Well, not entirely true. Anyone can smoke tea leaves (no, not that way), but it can’t be considered true Lapsang Souchong unless it’s grown and processed on Mount Wuyi in Fujian province, China. Of even greater value is Lapsang from the original village that invented it – Tong Mu. However, in recent years, production at the original site has dwindled. The reason? A newer, more marketable upstart – Jin Jun Mei.

Lapsang Souchong itself doesn’t fetch a high price in bulk. While it has an interesting story, and an even more fascinating processing style, it is considered a low-grade tea. In most circles, smoking tea leaves is a method for hiding any flaws the potential brew might have. It’s much harder to judge the quality of a leaf that is heavily smoked. Hence the reason the price per yield is much lower.

Jin Jun Mei, while a newer cousin to Lapsang Souchong, utilizes higher grade leaves. They tend to be younger and gold-tipped (as the “Jin” in the name implies). One could even compare the processing style to that of a gold-tipped Yunnan Dian Hong. I vaguely remember trying Jin Jun Mei several years ago, but it barely made an impression on me. Since then, the price per pound has sky-rocketed, and traditional Lapsang Souchong took a back seat.

A young, upstart tea nudging out one of my personal favorites? Not on my damn watch! It was high-time I gave this little gold weasel the brew-beating it deserved. As luck would have it, the wonderful company, Wild Tea Qi, sent me two teas to do exactly that.

It was time for a good ol’-fashioned . . .

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

The “wild” in the Lapsang Souchong meant that the leaves were plucked from plants that were left to grow without much cutting. It, however, was not from Tong Mu.

The wild leaves were surprisingly thin, small and twisty – typical for a tea of its type, but there was something missing. The smell of smoke! Okay, not entirely true, it was sorta there but faint. It made me think back to another Lapsang that was smoked over wet pinewood instead of dry. Very similar aroma – woody, slightly sweet and malty.

The Jin Jun Mei? What the hell?! Okay . . . I know for a fact that it’s considered part of the “Souchong” family, but I was under the impression that it wasn’t smoked over pinewood – wet or dry. Its close sibling, Yin Jun Mei was. Heck, I’ve had it. But this?!

I digress.

When I tore open the bag, I was expecting tippy, young leaves – typical of a “gold” tea – but the ones I got here were darker and difficult to describe. Sure, there were gold-tippy pieces in the thin, twisty mini-pile of dry leaves. But here’s the thing . . . the aroma. Damn it, the aroma! It was smokier than the Wild Lapsang! How was that f**king possible?!

Calming down.

This required some background review of each tea’s profile. Wild Tea Qi said nothing about their Wild Lapsang Souchong being smoked. In point of fact, all they said was that it was “dried” over pine, then lightly fried. No smokeage. By contrast, their Jin Jun Mei was smoked, which went against everything I knew about the tea. (Granted, which wasn’t much.)

It was like I was about to brew up in a bizarro universe. All I needed was a goatee. I approached both teas the same way – a teaspoon of leaves in 6oz. steeper cups, infused for three minutes.

Wild Lapsang Souchong . . .

It brewed to a dark cherry wood liquor color with an unusually sweet aroma. Seriously, it reminded me of a chocolate bar melted on firewood. Taste-wise, the introduction was bitter, but it mellowed out quickly to a weird, almost floral middle before ending on a note of leather and ash. Just what I would expect a Lapsang to do, only with less burning.

Jin Jun Mei . . .

Holy crap! I mean, seriously. What the hell did I just taste? No, I’m not dissing it; quite the opposite. The liquor brewed up the same as the Wild Lapsang, but the aroma was fruitier – berry-ish, even. Also like the Lapsang, the flavor profile began the same way. The initial sip was smoke, which immediately transitioned to . . . cherries and honey dipped in burnt chocolate.

The winner? Damn it. I really didn’t want to say this . . . Jin Jun Mei.

It hit all the right marks, threw me for a loop in all the right ways. I loved the Wild Lapsang, but I adored the Jun Mei just a little bit more. This was seriously not how I thought this brewing session would turn out.

I don’t know what to believe anymore.

Indi’s Awesome Mustache (and Tea)

Imagine a college student discovering tea for the first time, and finding a teashop to frequent. After many visits during his college tenure – and following many dialogues with the owner – he mentions in passing, “I’m going to make a trip to India.” The owner of said teashop then says to the college student, “You should visit tea gardens while you’re there.”

That sort of conversation – albeit paraphrased – actually did take place between then-collegiate, Raj Vable, and Josh “J-TEA” Chamberlain. That small dialogue led Raj to form a partnership that would blossom into a fledgling tea company in late-2013. The company was called Young Mountain Tea, and its mission statement was near and dear to my heart: To promote direct links between tea farmers, tea vendors and tea consumers.

While still a young company, their lofty goals included carrying teas from already-existing small growers and sharing their stories. (Always my favorite.) As well as promoting the development of new farms in new growing regions. (Also my favorite.)

I had the pleasure of meeting up with Raj at Tea Bar roughly a month ago.

He explained their story to me, and also passed along some of the teas they were carrying. The one I had read about prior to the meeting – and immediately caught my eye – was Indi’s Gold. It was a black tea produced in Nilgiri under the management of one Indi Khanna – who may just be one of the most adorable Indian growers ever. Just watch the video and marvel at his adorableness . . . and the epicness of that mustache!

(Seriously, I want collectible plushy dolls of some of these grower dudes.)

Beyond the goal of growing the coolest mustache ever, Indi Khanna took a swath of land belonging to the Coonoor estate in Nilgiri, and turned it into an all-organic tea farm. Until recently, production had been so small scale, that teas produced on this small plot of land hadn’t been introduced to the U.S. market. As of a year ago, due to Young Mountan Tea’s introduction, that has changed. I was only a little excited to be one of the first to write about it.

Okay, a lot excited.

The leaves were small, tight and curly – much like a Bi Luo Chun – resembling snail-like, conical shells. Raj had informed me that Indi Khanna had them hand-rolled this way as an experiment. Whatever the reason, they were lovely leaves. The aroma they gave off was both spicy and fruit-zesty with a dash of something that reminded me of unsweetened vanilla.

There were no brewing instructions for this on the Young Mountain Tea site, but Raj recommended treating it with a light-touch. I figured a Darjeeling-ish technique would work well enough – 1 tsp. of leaves, water at just under a boil, and only a two-and-a-half-minute steep. It was my usual, go-to approach for Indian teas, anyway.

For the sake of full disclosure: The first brew I did at a full three minutes ended up extremely bitter. Like, Assam bitter but with more groin-punching. Two and a half minutes was the steeping sweet spot. One should not go over that.

The liquor brewed a medium-bold amber color with an oddly smoky/spicy aroma. I likened it to a Keemun aroma with a slight Darjeeling bend. On taste, the forefront was all Nilgiri – slightly astringent but satisfyingly apricot. That transitioned into a floral, almost jasmine-like middle, and trailed off into sweetness, spice and silk. The aftertaste was lingering, but not unwelcoming. A second infusion at a slightly longer time turned out even fruitier.

Nilgiri is the one growing region in India that has continued to surprise me in recent years. Often given a bad rep for low-quality teas, farmers like Suresh Nanjan and, now, Indi Khanna have been doing their darnedest to dispel such notions. I’m also overjoyed to see new companies like Young Mountain Tea taking a vested interest in their development.

I’ll keep a bird’s eye view from my cup. In my pajamas. Wishing to grow an epic mustache.

Bug Bites, Tea Huts, and Sipping Wisdom

Early on in my tea writing “career”, there was one name that always popped up – Lindsey Goodwin. She was one of the tea writers on the scene, managed her own consultation website, and was the resident caffeine guru for About.com.

And at one point in time, she was also a Portlander. As one might imagine, that meant her name came up in regular, real-life conversation as well. “You haven’t met Lindsey?” “Oh, you really should talk to Lindsey!” Referencing her like she was a one-woman, all-knowing, tea drunk Grateful Dead concert.

LindseyBowlTeaLg

Eventually, I did reach out to Lindsey about three(-or-so) years ago to do an interview for my personal website. And then . . . I completely flaked on it. Partly out of complete shyness, and because . . . well . . . it’s me. However, by the time I mustered the gumption to touch bases again, she’d fallen completely off the tea grid.

There were whispers throughout the tea community that she was traveling around the world, doing research for a forthcoming book. Others said she was spotted in Taiwan, helping someone start up a teashop. There was no concrete evidence to corroborate any of these mythical claims. For all I knew, she found the one gateway to Narnia.

Then a funny thing happened.

In June of 2014, I received an e-mail from her wondering if I wanted a special delivery of Global Tea Hut’s magazine and tea. So, that was where she’d ended up! I knew next to nothing about the operation. The only bits of information I had were gleaned from fellow tea blogess – Nicole, Tea For Me Please – who described them as her “favorite tea hippie commune”.

Mi Xiang prep

Further digging turned up some fascinating information. Apparently, they were the “global” arm of an actual place in Miaoli, Taiwan called The Tea Sage Hut. And it was just as Nicole had described – a commune full of tea drinkers. That is probably over-simplifying their mission. Their primary goal was to spread knowledge and appreciation of “the Leaf” in an almost Taoist/Zen-ish way.

It was all beyond me.

What I could understand, though, was their global subscription service. That mission statement was simpler to define. And brilliant. As far as I knew, no one was putting out a monthly tea magazine that also included a thematically-linked tea with it. The June issue was centered around – not one, but two – teas of the same name; Mi Xiang, or “Honey Orchid”. One version was an oolong, and the other was a red (black) tea.

It was part of a sub-class of organic teas often jokingly referred to as “bug-bitten” teas. Due to a lack of pesticide use, tea plants were exposed to katydid onslaughts. As the little leafhoppers bit the leaves, a chemical change occurred to the leaf itself, resulting in a coating that imparted a honey-like taste. Eastern Beauty was the most common tea of this sub-category.

These particular Mi Xiangs were created by a gardener referred to as “Mr Xie”, located in Ming Jian, Nantou County, Taiwan. He was a third generation farmer. For him, the ideal picking time for bug-bitten tea leaves was between June and August.

Global Tea Hut covered his story in 2012 and revisited it in their June issue. His farming techniques matched their mission statement of promoting organic and sustainable tea growing practices. The fact that they featured two of his teas for comparison matched with my mission statement: Geeking out.

The difference between the two teas was obvious just from sight alone. The leaves for the “red” tea were . . . well . . . redder, at least in the stems. The leaves for the oolong were an alternating green and purple – like most mid-oxidized, ball-fisted oolongs. As for shape, both looked the same. The differences (beyond color) didn’t appear until I put my nose to the tin. The red version was noticeably sweeter and nuttier, whereas the oolong was more floral. Exactly what I thought the difference would be.

The Global Tea Hut magazine recommended simply brewing by the pot. Gongfu was suggested but not required. Given that this was a bug-bitten tea, I wanted to see what the nuances were. So, I opted for gongfu. (That and my teapot still smelled like Earl Grey from a prior brew-up.)

Mi Xiang Oolong

Three separate infusions – varying from thirty-to-forty seconds – resulted in light-green liquors and a honey-like aroma. Taste-wise, each one had a buttery introduction that transitioned quickly to straight sweetness, and ended on a white wine-like, Gewürztraminer-ish note. As expected, it was very similar to other bug-bitten oolongs I’d tried, if a little lighter on the body.

Mi Xiang Red

At the same brew times as the oolong, the red came out dark amber for each infusion. The aroma was nuttier, possibly even more mineral. On taste, the first infusion was a lot like the oolong version. But as I worked through the successive steeps, it got sweeter and deeper until I ended up tasting straight-up honey on the last.

If I were to pick a favorite…

I would have to go with the red. Taiwanese bug-bitten blacks are solid. They’re sweet, layered and popping with character. This one was no exception. It hit all the right marks on my palatial subjectivity. The oolong was great as well, but I was going through a bit of a black tea phase

Unfortunately, I wasn’t feeling any of the Tao-ish/Zen-ish stuff the magazine was talking about. That is, until I did a brew-up of the Mi Xiang red tea in a travel mug before work. I was stressed from additional responsibilities I’d taken on at my “day job”. That particular day promised to be extra difficult. By my third infusion . . . something amazing happened . . .

All of that stress just . . . washed away. Nothing mattered. Everything was finite, insignificant and trivial. That and I accomplished all of my tasks with some semblance of calm.

By sheer coincidence, around that third infusion, I received another e-mail from Lindsey Goodwin, explaining her remarkable, tea nomadic story. About how she ended up at the Tea Sage Hut, and her three-year stay there. She closed off the letter with, “Wishing wisdom with every sip.”

For a fleeting moment, I understood.

New Tea on New Year’s Eve

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

2014 was an odd year.

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

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

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

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

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

Azerbaijan?!

Azerbaijan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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