Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

Month: April 2015

A Tale of a Nepalese Tea Estate

I’m well aware of the awkward timing of this blog, given recent events. Originally, I’d intended to have this up the week prior. Circumstances of the lazy kind prevented me from finishing it by then. So, here it is, now. And, yes, I will be addressing the really shaky subject matter toward the end. But please allow me to start from the rather pleasant beginning . . .

Three years ago, I had the distinct pleasure of trying my second tea from Nepal. It was from a tea estate dubbed Ilam Chiyabari. I tried to locate it via Google Maps at the time, but found no information on it. After posting a review of said second flush black tea, I actually received a comment from one of the co-owners of the estate – Bachan Gyawali. He said that Ilam Chiyabari was a new outfit, but that he (and his brother, Lochan) also owned a sister tea estate called Jun Chiyabari – located in Eastern Nepal.

Jun Chiyabari estate

Mere months later, I had a chance to try something from the sister estate, a green tea called “Himalayan Evergreen”. I remember being floored by it. Years would pass before teas from that estate would once again grace my cup. Niraj Lama, o’ he of Happy Earth Tea, informed me that he’d acquired a few teas from said estate, and that they were en route to me as he was writing the e-mail. Two black teas, one oolong and a green tea.

Jun Chiyabari

Needless to say I was excited. For two reasons: (1) I wanted to get a better idea of the other teas the estate produced, and (2) I was looking forward to writing a Happy Earth Tea-based blog that didn’t involve dwarves . . . or my brother’s dog. (Long stories; both of them.)

Himalayan Evergreen #121

At the time I tried this, I had no idea it was a variation of the same green tea I sampled three years ago. As with most of the Jun Chiyabari offerings, this was from the autumn 2014 harvest. And like the other teas, their appearance was indicative of the overall style of the Nepalese estate’s technique. The leaves were small, obviously hand-rolled, and – as the name suggests – green. Unlike the other teas, though, the leaves were far greener, and that also showed in the scent, which was herbaceous and sweet – like a Chinese Xue Ya green tea.

For brewing, I went for a light approach – even by green tea standards. I heated water to roughly 175-ish F, used around a teaspoon of leaves and a 6oz. steeper cup. For the safe side of steeping, I went with a three-minute infusion.

Himalayan Evergreen

The results were . . . magnificently pleasant. There was a grassy, buttery introduction that transitioned (creamily!) to a floral conclusion. If there was a top note, I didn’t notice it amidst curling up in an evergreen electric blanket of pleasantness. This was terribly pleasant afternoon comfort food.

Himalayan Oolong

Believe it or not, I’m a bit of an old hat at Himalayan oolongs. I’ve had several over the course of years, and no two are the same. Some are ball-rolled, others are deeply roasted. If one is looking, they can spot a common terroir-related characteristic. But other than that, they’re all quite different. This was no exception.

On appearance, it was like looking at a Darjeeling that’d been coiled like a Chinese Bi Luo Chun. The color of the leaves was distinctly oolong, though – soft greens to hues of purple and brown. A veritable menagerie of mid-oxidation. The aroma also exuded this with a floral, slightly fruity, and almond-like presence.

For brewing, I went with a Darjeeling-ish approach. I brought water to a boil, let it cool for a minute or two, then poured it over 1 tsp. of leaves in a 6oz. steeper cup.

Himalayan Oolong

The results were really peculiar – in a good way. The liquor brewed light amber with an aroma of wine grapes and wilderness flowers. On taste, that’s where things got really confusing. The introduction was all grape, but then it settled down into something more resonant – not exactly floral, not exactly earthy. I would say, close to aromatic, like a Taiwanese oolong but with a Himayalan bend. The finish was light and creamy.

Himalayan Bouquet #130

The leaves for the Himalayan Bouquet were twisty in a hand-rolled sort of way – like an oolong, half-balled. Colors on display ranged from brown to green, to shades of white tea pale. I even spotted some downy furs on some of the lighter leaves. The aroma they gave off was straight nuts and . . . mocha? Chocolate but with a kick.

For brewing, I treated this as any other black tea – a tablespoon of leaves in a 12oz. mug of boiling water for three minutes. I assumed that the liquor would color as soon as I touched-down my little strainer ball. Not the case. The water didn’t start infusing color until well into a minute of steeping. That had me worried.

Then I put nose to cup.

Himalayan Bouqet #130

The smell of nuts was strong with this one. The liquor did end on a pale note – Darjeeling first flush light, on the subtler side of amber. To the taste, though, my eyes widened a little; one brow furrowed. Almonds were the introduction, followed by delightfully floral middle, and it trailed off with a faint astringency that settled on something herbaceous. Had this been a blind man, I thought I would’ve tasted a nuanced Darjeeling oolong.

Himalayan Bouquet #153

The leaves for this offering were different from its other numbered sibling, but not in the appearance. Both the #130 and the #153 looked the same – hand-rolled curly-cue leaves of varying colors. Where they differed was the smell. This possessed more of a traditional, malty black tea aroma, where the #130 was more . . . Spring-like?

I brewed it like I did everything else, boiled water, three-minute steep, 1 tsp., 6oz. steeper cup . . . etc. . . . yadda-yadda . . . ad infinitum.

Himalayan Bouquet #153

The liquor brewed up light amber, just like every other medium-bodied Jun Chiyabari offering. On sight alone, I wouldn’t be able to tell both Bouquets – or the estate oolong, for that matter – a apart. The difference was in the aroma. This had a much deeper aroma and a slightly burlier presence. That also showed up on taste, delivering a bit more astringency at the forefront, followed by a toastier top note, and trailing off into a sea of almonds and flowers.

Just like three years ago, the one that floored me the most again was the Himalayan Evergreen. It had all the things I looked for in a green tea – that being it had nothing in common with typical green teas. Hard to believe, but green tea really isn’t my favorite type of tea. Sure, there are those I like, but I tend to gravitate towards . . . well . . . anything else. To find a green tea I like, let alone one I love is a rare thing, indeed. All the Jun Chiyabari teas were great, but the Evergreen was exceptional.

As I said above, I meant to have this article up a week ago, but then on Saturday (April 25th, 2015) a devastating earthquake devastated the capital city of Kathmandu and surrounding areas. The impact was felt all the way to India. I was at work at the time, and first learned of it from Facebook. Folks I knew (or knew of) in the region were checking in, informing everyone that they were safe.

After getting off shift, I took to Twitter to learn more. Amidst my various inquiries, I actually received a reply to one of my pings from the Jun Chiyabari estate itself:

Jun Chiyabari tweet

Relief tugged at my heart. A simple reply – a mere few characters – reminded me that regardless of vast distances, we’re all connected. Whether by chord . . . or cup.

Steeped Recipes at Smith’s

I can’t cook . . . worth a damn.

The only interest I’ve ever taken in food preparation is, well, how to eat it. That is where my exploration of the culinary arts begins and often ends. Beyond the making of an epic sammich (yes, sammich, not sandwich), my ability to cook, bake, and . . . just generally follow instructions of any kind falters.

What does one expect from a guy who screwed up Easy Mac? Twice. In one session.

I highlight all of this to illustrate that I am the most unqualified candidate for food-related events, such as the one I attended on Saturday.

Steeped

Smith Teamaker had booked a cook book author for a demonstration at their HQ. The author in question was Annelies Zijderveld, and her new book was Steeped: Recipes Infused with Tea. As the title suggests, the focus was on how to use tea in a culinary capacity. (Y’know, besides just sprinkling kitchen-grade matcha on everything and calling it a tea recipe.)

Tea MC Tiff, Smith’s social media guru-ess, sent me an invitation to the demo a couple of months back. Initially, I had to decline because of my dodgy weekend work schedule. However, by some stroke of foodie fate, I ended up with the day off. I planned my day around the event accordingly, “hired” the lovely M. Tepper to photograph the proceedings, and the mission was a “go”.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect, having never attended a cooking demonstration before. A part of my mind was picturing Julia Child caked in green tea powder. That non sequitur image was dispelled upon entering Smith’s boardroom. Tiff expertly corralled us press folk, and took us to the back kitchen.

Annelies and her assistant-du-jour were aproned and bustling.

Annelies

There were tea and foodstuffs everywhere. My tummy growled in both frustration and delight. I hadn’t eaten lunch, yet. Said stomach reminded me quite loudly. But back to the book . . .

Annelies’s inspiration for writing Steeped came during her time working for a tea company. Yes, she actually had tea industry experience. One day, while working on something menial, she grabbed a gyokuro leaf and started chewing on it. She liked the taste so much, she figured, why not a cook book?! Stranger inspirations have happened. I once plotted an epic space battle in the shower – sound effects and all.

Participants were first asked to indulge in a tea tasting.

Tasting

Bowls of Long Jing, Roobios, Lord Bergamot, Keemun Hao Ya, Masala Chai, and ceremonial grade matcha lay in front of us. I was surprised at the last one. Usually, in regards to cooking, culinary grade matcha was utilized for recipes – mainly for bulk amount and cost effectiveness. I was a bit elated by this high-brow change.

Palates primed, Annelies then guided us through several ways to use the teas in various recipes. Many called for using a simple coffee grinder to pulverize loose tea leaves into a course (but not matcha fine) powder. Roobios was utilized in a butter recipe that was simply divine – with a capital diva! Long Jing was, quite surprisingly, put to good use as part of a furikake seasoning for popcorn. Keemun was paired with salt for a white bean walnut spread. Masala Chai was used for nifty li’l cupcake thingies. And good ol’ matcha was paired with coconut to form . . . something. (I forgot the name of it. Wasn’t a fan.)

But my favorite . . . oh dear lord . . . my favorite . . .

Earl Grey yogurt parfait

F**king Earl Grey yogurt!!!

Holy bergamot balls this was good. And the best part, the recipe was easy. Put simply, it was dunking Earl Grey (in a filter bag or sachet) in yogurt, repeatedly, for three days, and stirring. Even I couldn’t screw that up. The results were astounding. In plain yogurt, the bergamot notes were subtle and sweet, but still there.

The demo ended with an opportunity to purchase the book and mingle a bit with the authoress. By the end of the two-hour event, I was full and quite caffeinated. Lost track of my appetite. As a parting gift from Smith’s, we were each given a tea “starter kit” to try some of the recipes at home.

starter kit

Now . . . all I need is yogurt. Lots of yogurt.

Regarding Tea Sachets

In more informed tea circles, it is common knowledge that teabags are crap. Those little bags of ass-flavored tea usually contain the dust left over after the good, loose leaf tea was packaged. The taste of an average black tea from a bag is rough and bitter, like licking a chalkboard. (Yes, I’ve tried that.) But what about sachets?

travel mug

Even the word sounds snobbish. The definition isn’t any better: “A perfumed bag used to scent clothes”. However, sachets (sans perfuming or clothing) have been adopted by many tea producers and vendors to package whole leaf tea in a convenient way for undiscerning consumers. Let’s face it. Not all of those that are curious about loose leaf tea want to go through the trouble of using a strainer.

The issue for most orthodox tea drinkers isn’t the idea of a filter bag, but rather the material – and the fact that said sachet may prevent whole tea leaves from properly . . . uh . . . breathing. (Their language, not mine.) Many loose leaf tea drinkers believe that confining the leaves to a foreign material while brewing affects the flavor.

I, honestly, never had an opinion one way or the other. Granted, I preferred brewing tea loose leaf – even so far as to just put leaves in a mug, no strainer. However, there were plenty of teas out there that were duly sacheted I liked. One of my favorite outfits, Smith Teamaker offered consumers the option of loose leaf or sachet, and I flip-flopped between the two.

But it was high-time I finally saw for myself if there was really a difference between the methods. Did sachets negatively influence the experience? I needed a good example to go on. Luckily, I received an oolong from an organic tea garden in Bangladesh, and it happened to come in biodegradable sachets. Perfect for just such a side-by-side comparison.

Teatulia was started in the early 2000s in Northern Bangladesh. It was the first – and so far, only – organic tea garden in the country. They were also among the first farm-direct outfits on the scene. I had the pleasure of trying some of their wares several years ago. Of particularly noteworthiness was their white tea. However, I had no idea they had an oolong among their wares. When they contacted me recently, that was the tea I selected to drench myself in. Er . . . for science.

I brewed a bag once for a work shift, but didn’t pay much attention to it. On a second go-around, I wanted to brew it loose.

oolong loose

I’m glad I did because it gave me ample opportunity to see the leaves up close. They looked similar to Teatulia’s black tea. Many of them were lighter in color – tippier, even – betraying their semi-oxidized process. The aroma also possessed a fruitier lean. Some chocolate also showed up in traces on a whiff.

Teatulia recommended putting one sachet in an 8oz. cup of boiled water for two-to-three minutes. I went about two-and-a-half to be on the safe side. For once, I wasn’t feeling totally rambunctious with my brewing.

oolong brewed

The result was a bold, copper-brewed liquor with an aroma of malt and nuts. The taste initially began with a bitter prologue, but that smoothed out to something floral, sweet and burly! Like getting a hug from a honey-dipped flower on steroids. The finish was all sorts o’ nuanced. I couldn’t pick up on anything specific, other than a gurgle of delight. It reminded me of some of the oolongs from Nepal I’d come in contact with.

But now I had to do some serious business.

side by side

Which method was better? Loose leaf . . . or sachet? Would there be a noticeable flavor difference between the two? Did the leaves really need to breeeeaaaaathe?

Short answer: No.

side by side brewed

Was there a flavor difference? Not a damn one.

Granted, there might not have been a difference because both the leaves had originally been sacheted. Results may have differed if I had acquired some straight-up, loose leaf oolong to properly compare. That and the cut of the leaves was fairly small, thus allowing for ideal brewing by either method. A tea brewed from larger, whole leaves in a sachet might produce different results. But as I see it, there was no glaring detraction from the sachet. No trace of “silk” on the palate.

My subjective, semi-informed verdict: A teabag is bad, but a sachet is okay.

sachet okay

A Dork Drunk on Doke

Let’s talk a little about terroir.

indeed

It’s a word usually bandied about by wine folks in order to sound “edumacated”. Blame the French. The word “terroir” derives from the French word “terre”, which literally means “land”. Terroir, as a concept, is applied to plants that are influenced by the “land” where they grow. Geology, geography, climate, and other aspects of the biosphere affect what grows in certain ways. And especially in the case of wine, coffee and tea, the taste of said terroir shows up in the finished product.

Tea plants are especially absorbent of their environment. Case in point (as I’ve mentioned in prior articles), Hawaiian teas taste distinctly . . . well . . . tropically Hawaiian. Wuyi cliff teas taste rather . . . uh . . . cliffy. [Credit: Nicole Martin] And teas from the Himalayas take on a grapy bend, for some reason.

Which brings me back to Doke Tea. Yet again.

Doke

Seriously, I think I’ve written about this tea garden more than any other. I can’t help it. Their teas are awesome, the Lochan family is awesome, and I feel awesome when drinking their wares.

Of the four or five types of teas this garden in Bihar, India produces, I’ve noticed a common underlying flavor profile. It’s difficult to describe, and far different from any other Indian tea growing region. Something about the terroir near the Doke River imparts an ever-present, honey-nut-spice taste trifecta. A trinity of taster notes that is especially present in their flagship black tea – Black Fusion.

I have a very interesting relationship with this tea. One would if they’ve written about it three times. After three successive growing seasons. Only now do I realize how wonderful an opportunity that was, to see a tea’s evolution and growth over the course of a year. And in February of this year, Vivek Lochan offered me a chance to try their 2015 first flush Black Fusion.

A slight digression: The journey of this tea to my cup was especially frustrating. I wasn’t at my apartment when the package arrived, so the courier left a note telling me where to pick it up. The next day, I went to fetch it after work . . . two towns away. I made the trek only to find out that they delivered it to my apartment complex’s office.

Well, why the hell didn’t you do that the FIRST time?! I said to myself (but not out loud).

Two months would go by before I dipped into the new batch of Black Fusion. The day I finally decided to brew it up, my Internet died. I needed something to calm me amidst the downtime.

black fusion loose

The leaves were gorgeous – brown-to-black, large, plump, and obviously hand-rolled. The smell was like last year’s various flushes of Black Fusion I tried – equal parts honey-like, malty, nutty and slightly spicy. The Doke terroir was in full effect, and I was pleased to see it again.

I approached it like I would any other Indian first flush tea, with a little bit of a light touch. I used about a teaspoon of leaves. (Although, with how large they were, it was more like a tablespoon.) I put them in a 6oz. steeper cup filled with 200F water, and waited for three minutes.

black fusion brewed

The result was a dark amber liquor with a deep-bodied, honey-nut machismo to the aroma. When I tasted it, I noticed immediately that it was different than last year’s offerings. The introduction was smooth and sultry, like a dark-haired Latina in a silk dress. As I kept it on my tongue, the honey-nut-spice thing it had going came to the forefront, but absent was the usual astringency that followed. That was the puzzling part. There was no astringency, or at least none that I could detect.

I’ve become sort of an expert on the Doke flagship tea, at this point. I even adamantly declared that August 2014’s batch of the tea was my favorite, May was second, and December rounded out third. All were wonderful; all were different. But they all had a rough character to them. This year’s batch was like a distilled whiskey or a matured wine. It was Black Fusion refined – terroir transcendent.

A day or so after I did my solo tasting, I was greeted with a photo posted to my Facebook Wall.

iced Doke

It read: “Iced Black Fusion from Doke in their office in Siliguri, jealous?”

 

Phil “World Tea House” Holmans had visited the Doke Tea Estate with a bunch of other tea folks I knew. Jealous? Oh yes, quite a bit. Those lucky bastitches were sampling Doke teas straight from the terroir! My only reaction to this was to drink. A lot. Not sure if it was my seething jealousy, or my poor impulse control, but I went on a total Doke bender that week.

During a chat session with other tea bloggers (Rachel, Jo, Nicole, Other Nicole, and Chris, respectively), I was hopped up on Doke Silver Needle white tea.

Doke Silver Needle

About three pints of it.

A mere day after that, I prepped my daily travel mug with some Doke Rolling Thunder oolong.

Doke Rolling Thunder

And brewed it at double the usual strength. Coworkers noted that I was a tad off the wall. One girl even said, “I like you like this.” I was too hyper to properly manblush.

I concluded the week taking the last vestiges of my first flush 2015 Black Fusion . . . and blending it with the two 2014s I had in my possession.

spent leaves

Yes, individually, they all tasted differently, but put together . . . magic ensued. It was like the honey-nut-spice terroir was somehow amplified. All the creamy, sweet, spicy, malty, nutty, and majestic aspects coalesced into the ultimate tasting experience. Like I was tasting pure Doke.

Toward the conclusion of this brew-binge, a friend of mine dubbed me a “Doke dork”. I had no rebuttal to that. If I had, I probably would’ve answered like some terroir-spouting wine snob, “I can quit whenever I want.”

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