Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

Month: February 2015

A High Mountain Happy Accident

The late Bob Ross used to close his show with the line, “There are no mistakes, only happy accidents.”

bobross

His philosophy – if it can be called that – holds true for a lot of things. Oolong, for starters, was a happy accident. As legend has it, the style came about because a leaf picker fell asleep, allowing the leaves to partially oxidize. Taiwanese aged oolong was a happy accident. Someone once thought, “Hey, why don’t we sit on this back stock of tea for a few years and see what happens.” Lapsang Souchong . . . well . . . I think I’ve covered that subject aplenty.

Point being, while the Ross-ite “happy accident” logic doesn’t hold true for all things, it does for a lot of things, especially in the tea world. I just never thought I would run into one in my pursuit of weird teas. This one practically fell into my lap.

I received an e-mail from Eco-Cha, a relatively new outfit. The name “Eco-Cha” in Chinese literally translates to, “A Sip of Tea”. The company was the brainchild of Andy Kincart, Tom Lin and Nick Fothergill – all of whom had lived in Taiwan for a number of years. Advisory support was provided by Tony and Lisa Lin, renowned proponents of Taiwanese tea culture. Their mission was simple, source and sell Taiwanese oolong tea directly to the consumer.

Occasionally, however, they sourced the odd black tea or two. One in particular hailed from the Shan Lin Xi district in Nantou county, Taiwan – a relatively high altitude tea growing region. The name Shan Lin Xi translated to “Pine Forest Stream”, and was also home to the famous oolong of the same name. Many farmers in the region have been at the tea growing game for several decades . . . including this guy.

Image mooched from Eco-Cha.

Image mooched from Eco-Cha.

(I have no clue who he is.)

In winter of 2012, after tea leaves had been plucked and fried, they were brought indoors to oxidize. They were stored on multiple racks, one on top of the other. The tea master had inadvertently forgotten to check the top rack. (It was above eye level.) He didn’t realize this until the next day, after the leaves had undergone roughly 75% oxidation. The typical Shan Lin Xi oolong oxidation level is about 30%.

Instead of tossing the entire batch, the tea master adapted his rolling techniques to suit these accidental leaves. The result was a unique beast in the tea world often referred to as a “red oolong”. While it was still an oolong by technique, the mostly-oxidized profile gave it a black tea (or “red tea”) character. I had sampled red oolongs before, but those had been intentional. This was my first taste of a happy accident.

loose leaf

The leaves looked like a darker-roast, heavier oxidized version of almost every Taiwanese oolong I’ve ever come across. They were ball-fisted in appearance, and the color spectrum ran from forest green to cherry wood red. What was different, though, was that the actual leaf-rolling appeared incomplete. They weren’t as tightly rolled as others I’d come across before. As for fragrance, I was more reminded of other Taiwanese black teas – due to the sweeter aroma – but there was something different at play, too. A floral underpinning was also present amidst the sweetness.

Eco-Cha surprised me with some of their brewing recommendations. Aside from the usual gongfu (multiple short infusions) brewing instructions, they also recommended brewing this grandpa-style – putting leaves in a mug and pouring hot water over it. That gave me a grin . . . so, I did it both ways.

Brewed gongfu-style, the liquor color on each infusion gradually grew darker.

gong fu

It started off pale, like a typical Taiwanese oolong, then grew slightly more crimson by the second, and a deep bronze by the third. Each steep had an aroma of sweetened nuts and a hint of fruit. That also showed up in the taste, revealing a complex combination of flavors and sensations. Like an oolong with darker – if mintier – aspirations

Grandpa-style, though . . . wow . . .

grandpa style

I didn’t have a 16oz. mug (that was clean) for taste-testing, so I utilized a 12oz. one. Unfortunately (and awesomely!), I kept the leaf ratio the same – roughly 2 teaspoons. The results were sheer brilliance – a bold, rust red-colored liquor with leaves at the bottom beckoning to surface. The aroma was like that of a Ruby 18; woody, minty, sweet, and slightly malty. Some astringency showed up the further down I sipped, but it helped bring a spry note to the sweeter proceedings. The further I sipped, the more it was like I was sipping cherry-filled chocolates that’d been left in the sun.

By the end of this Taiwanese double-fisting, I realized I was extremely wired. Not just any wired, but “Rainbow Fuzzy Buddha”-wired. Doesn’t make sense? Well, it didn’t to me, either. I hadn’t intended to have that much of this black tea in one sitting. Nor did I plan on re-steeping both helpings. My excuse? Another photograph.

both preps

Flimsy, I know.

Oh well, like this tea, the resulting warm fuzzy feeling was just a happy accident.

A Swift, Southern Caffeinated Kick in the Teeth

Have I ever mentioned that I’m sensitive to caffeine? Like “Deanna Troi” sensitive.

Derpanna Troi

Upon my first exposure to yaupon holly – yerba mate’s sweeter, ‘Merican cousin – I hadn’t prepared for the absolute caffeine zing! it imparted. It took three melatonin pills just to slow my heart rate enough to sleep that night. For a person whose idea of a morning pick-me-up is a second flush Darjeeling, that caffeine wallop was a bit much. I never thought I’d need something that strong again. Until . . .

Enter Lou Thomann.

I actually met Lou back in 2013 at my first World Tea Expo, during the first meeting of U.S. tea growers. We were formally introduced, but I had no idea what his particular crop was. In fact, I mistook him for a Hawaiian tea grower, which took an awful lot of mental talent (on my part) to do, considering he hailed from Savannah, GA. And sounded like it.

Image mooched from Connect Savannah.

Image mooched from Connect Savannah.

His works caught my eye some months later when I saw a picture posted by Jason McDonald (of The Great Mississippi Company). In said pic, he was swigging a particularly dark brew, but it wasn’t a typical tea. No, it was an herbal infusion – one I’d been researching for years. Freakin’ yaupon holly.

I didn’t know what Thomann’s plans were with the caffeinated herb, but I kept an eye on his Instagram for progress. Over the last decade, he had made the acquaintance of one George Ryan, an ex-chef/salesman. George wanted to explore sales on the food and beverage side, whereas Lou had aspirations of cultivating yaupon holly into some sort of ready-made product. From various caffeine-fueled meetings, ASI Tea was born.

Image mooched from DrinkAsi.com. Lou on the right, George on the left.

Image mooched from DrinkAsi.com. Lou on the right, George on the left.

Their mission statement was simple. The RTD (ready-to-drink) market was strong in the U.S., particularly in the South. Yaupon holly was native to the South. Sweet tea was the gasoline of choice. Energy drinks were big with the younger demographic. Why not create yaupon blends for the ready-to-drink market, and gear them to the sweet tea trade as well?

Originally, cultivating yaupon for a loose leaf product was a secondary consideration. But as the business model grew (and with interest rising among snobs like me), they decided to make a stab at a loose yaupon offering.

Before their wares, I hadn’t tried yaupon holly in its roasted form. I was hesitant at first because I feared there would be some loss of the herb’s natural sweetness. That dread was assuaged when I received both roasted yaupons. Yes . . . both.

I received two versions of this “tea”.

One came in a canister and contained a dustier cut, wrapped in do-it-yourself, stringed filter bags. Lou had informed me that they were experimenting with different leaf cuts. They wondered if a smaller leaf cut would yield a greater caffeine delivery.

yaupon bag

When I first opened the canister, it was like a plume of leaf smoke pummeled my face. I coughed through the laughter. It was as if a cannon had fired off at close range in front of me.

dust face

The plumage sure smelled good, though. I was reminded of a charcoal-roasted oolong – not as deep as a Da Hong Pao, but resembling a Ti Kwan Yin. Never thought I’d say that about an herb.

When I told this story to Lou, he joked, “Er, consider that our yaupon matcha.”

That garnered a chuckle or five.

I didn’t have time to give it a formal treatment when I first got it. However, I chose to make that my to-go beverage for work. One night that week, I only managed about four hours of sleep – due to anxiety – and needed something strong for the morning. I took one of the filter bags, plopped it into my travel mug, poured hot water over it, and left.

At first sip, my pupils dilated. Colors sharpened. My teeth gritted. Nostrils flared. Caffeine hit me like a charging rhino high on barbiturates. I wove through traffic, cursed at slow Subarus, and made it to work in record time. I might as well have had hyperdrives on my dainty little Ford Focus.

Oh yeah, and it tasted good – deceptively smooth and toasty. Three infusions lasted me the entire day. I barged through my work shift – chest flexed. Full disclosure: I lived on this for about a week.

Whee!

The second version was the standard fannings leaf cut. Some stems were present among the broken leaves, and the color palate ranged from dark green to brown. It smelled just like the dust-cut, but a bit sweeter on the nose than the smaller leaf bits. There was also a stronger, roastier and herbaceous presence to the aroma.

yaupon loose

For brewing, I used about a teaspoon of leaves and a 6oz. steeper mug filled to the brim with boiled water. For timing the infusion, I simply played a four-minute song (Iris’s The Harder We Fight It) to completion. Y’know, to get even further pumped.

After steeping, pouring this out was a chore. The lip on my steeper cup was too wide, and leaf particles came out with the water. Like, a lot of leaf particles. I worried there’d be swimmy, leafy bits in the brew. Luckily, all the herb pieces simply settled at the bottom of the brown-green liquor.

yaupon brewed

The taste was sweet, smoky, and slightly floral with a small hint of astringency on the end. And the caffeine woosh! hit almost immediately, taking the fast lane for my forehead. The aftertaste was like a bearskin rug on my tongue, just this numbing, warm creaminess that lingered with a trace of burnt wood.

I’m conflicted about which way I prefer yaupon prepared. I really liked the greener, un-roasted version, but there was certainly a depth of character to the roast. Both were an instant jolt of caffeine, which is nice on those difficult mornings. The roasted just kicked me in the teeth harder – southern-style. For not only did it make me feel like I could grab life by the balls after drinking it, but there was also a sense I could walk away from any explosion.

boom!

Teacup in hand.

Pinky out.

Scottish Grown Tea and Mystery Lasses

This all started with a forum topic. Tea Trade’s resident Smiling Frenchman – Xavier (of the Teaconomics blog) – had posted a discussion starter. It was aptly titled: “The First Scottish Tea is White and Smoky

That immediately held my attention. In the discussion, Xavier posted a link to an article about a new outfit dubbed The Wee Tea Company, who had set up their own tea garden. In Scotland! Not only that, but they had also brokered an exclusive deal with the British high-end store – Fortnum & Mason. The asking price? £35 for 15g. That’s, like, $53 in ‘Merican money.

To their credit, though, the two teas they were producing were quite special. One was a regular white tea, while the other was a smoked white tea. Yes, smoked! Like a Lapsang Souchong, but instead of using pinewood, they used beech trees.

The garden itself was called the Dalreoch Tea Estate (aka. The Wee Tea Plantation).

Banner mooched from The Wee Tea Plantation Facebook page

Banner mooched from The Wee Tea Plantation Facebook page

“Dalreoch” loosely translated to “the field of the King” in Scots-Gaelic. Said garden was nestled in the Strathbraan valley at the foot of the Scottish Highlands, just outside of the small town of Amulree in Perth & Kinross County. The garden was originally a test plot purchased by one Tam O’Braan geared toward the development of degradable polymers for agricultural use. Later, however, he teamed up with Derek Walker and Jamie Russell of The Wee Tea Company (based in Fife) to start a tea garden.

Image mooched from The Wee Tea Plantation Facebook page.

Image mooched from The Wee Tea Plantation Facebook page.

They broke ground in 2012 with roughly 2,000 tea plants to start. While Scottish weather was temperamental at best, the lads developed clever ways to help the plants thrive. The aforementioned polymers helped the soil retain moisture, and kept pests from feeding on the young plants. As the tea bushes matured, they were then covered in UV-protective plastic tubes to restrict photosynthesis. During the harsher winter months, the plants were fully covered to prevent die-off. In 2014 – just a little over two years – they plucked their first leaves, for the first ever Scottish white tea.

Scottish white tea

The question wasn’t whether or not I wanted it, but how I could bloody well get a hold of it. Neither The Wee Tea Company or Fortnum & Mason delivered to the U.S. I wasn’t worried about the money, per se. I would’ve sold a kidney to scrounge up the cash, if I had to.

I did the only thing I could do. I played the ol’ “tea blogger” card and hoped for the best. That . . . went about as well as expected.

scottish mafia

After all, I was small-time compared to all the other outlets that were covering the garden – STiR Tea & Coffee, The Daily Mail. Hell, even The BBC.

My only answer was to utilize some of my (albeit few) UK contacts and see if they could make the purchase on my behalf. In the interim, I counted pennies. Unfortunately, that was taking far longer to do than I thought. My kidney was dreading my eventual decision.

A savior appeared in the most unlikely of places. For about eight years, now, I had a penpal. We’ll call her “Mistress G”. She was a tea drinker, but not one of my regular tea contacts. I’d never met her in person. Mistress G just happened to be residing in the U.K. In a passing conversation, I told her about my interest in the Dalreoch smoked white tea.

She said, “Oh, I can get that for you.”

I replied with, “There’s no way I can pay you back for that.”

She countered with, “Don’t worry about it, consider it a gift.”

I had my very own mysterious, tea-swigging, philanthropic Carmen Sandiego.

carmen sandiego iced tea

The package arrived in record time, a week later. In it, she also included a tin of chocolate pearl cookies, handmade Earl Grey shortbread from Edinburgh, and a tea napkin! All from Fortnum & Mason. My eyes glazed over.

gift

After making short work of the Earl Grey shortbread, I bee-lined to the tea tins.

side by side

Scottish White on the left; Smoked Scottish White on the right.

 

The regular Scottish white tea had beautiful young, whole leaves and stems with a bouquet of colors ranging from green to brown. The aroma they gave off was straight forest and mint, with a dash of earth. It reminded me of a Yunnan-grown Moonlight white. Yue Guang Bai was a very burly, salt-of-the-earth sorta white on first impression; so was this.

The smoked white was a different beast entirely. On appearance, the leaves and stems had a smaller cut, almost broken pekoe-ish appearance. It was more in line with a Bai Mu Dan, visually. As for the aroma . . . oh my, “Yum.” Smoked teas tend to have an alternating hickory, campfiery and peaty scent to them. This had that but with a slight fruity tang on the back-end. Like someone lit a caramel-dipped apple on fire.

Given the smaller leaf pieces and the scent, I could almost imagine how the conversation between the innovators went.

Brilliant!

And then they punched each other in the face for solidarity.

For brewing, I went with a typical white tea approach – roughly 175F water and a three-minute steep for each. 1 heaping teaspoon of leaves in a 6oz. steeper cup.

Scottish White Tea

white tea

The regular white tea brewed to a vibrant yellow liquor with an aroma of berries, apples and spring leaves. This impression also echoed in the taste, which possessed a medium-bodied, creamy and fruit-sweet mouthfeel. It ended on a smooth, almost velvety finish with a lingering aftertaste of wilderness.

Scottish Smoked White Tea

smoked white tea

The smoked white brewed considerably darker, approaching Darjeeling amber in color. As for scent, well, it should be obvious. Straight peat moss and burnt wood wafted from the cup, but it was far more muted than I thought it would be. Not a negative thing at all, but a thankful subtlety that I wasn’t expecting. On taste, I was first greeted by whiskey, which then opened the door for chopped firewood, and courteously escorted an herbaceous finish.

I honestly can’t pick a favorite. White teas were the first loose leaf type I appreciated when my exploration was still in its infancy. Smoked teas appealed to my visceral, inner almost-manchild. On the one hand, I always appreciated the delicate and fruity aspects of tea. On the other, I liked to be hit in the face with blunt, burning trauma to my palate. I can’t decide, but what I can say is that this fledgling garden is off to a fantastic start.

brewed side by side

Would I pay $50-plus for their offerings? No. Of course, I’m probably saying that because I’m poor. For the moment, the price is slightly justified – both for the novelty and the rarity. Given that they’re only working with 2,000 plants – young ones, at that – they can easily ask for a higher price point for their yield. My hope is that when the operation expands, and more plants are introduced, that the price evens out a bit. With gardens in Northern Ireland, France, Switzerland and Italy going in, competition is bound to be fierce.

But they’re used to competition, aren’t they?

Rock tosser

Photo by Gene Rodman. “Model”: Gary Robson.

 

I’m just grateful this landed in my lap the way it did. And I can’t thank my mysterious benefactor enough. My diluted Scottish ancestry salutes ye, Mistress G.

UPDATE: I was just informed by one of the growers that they are now delivering globally. The last remaining stock can be purchased HERE.

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