Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

Ceylon and Thanks for All the Oolong

Let’s travel back to a more innocent time – November of 2011, to be precise. It was around that time that I finally found a purpose for this here tea blog. My goal was to track down unique teas, unusual blends, and/or teas with fascinating stories behind them. To commemorating that unusual sense of focus (for someone like me), I created “The Tea WANT! List”. I’d made reference to such a “list”-‘s existence for the better part of two years, but it was high-time to make it tea-tangible.

One of the items on the list was oolong from Ceylon (Sri Lanka). I also added the line: “I don’t even think it exists.”

Tea Trade Jackie replied with, “Uh, yeah it does.” And proceeded to show me various links.

In response to that, I did my own digging and ran across an oolong that sounded familiar. Sapphire Oolong from De Vos Tea.

sapphire

Why does that sound famil-…oh crap! I said to myself.

A Ceylon oolong (Ceylong?) had been sitting under my nose the entire time! Allow me to explain…

I got my start in tea-writing on a nifty review site called Teaviews. I owe my strange palate development to that site, as well as my exposure to the tea community at large. One of the teas I had a chance to review was a Ceylon white tea dubbed “Virgin White”. The estate that produced it was called Handunugoda, and it was located in the district of Galle – in Sri Lanka’s Southern Province.

handunugoda-tea-estate

Sri Lanka was the country that got me to like black teas. Before that, I’d primarily been a white tea man. And the white teas from there…ohmigawww! Heaven in a heated cup.

Moving right along, the Handunugoda estate also produced green teas, blends, and – wait for it…a Ceylon oolong, the aforementioned Sapphire. The story behind this stuff was crazy. Apparently, the estate had a plot of land set aside just for the tea plants used to produce the oolong. The soil was laced with tiny sapphires – no bigger than a pinhead.

pinhead2

Er…a little smaller than those.

What frustrated me was not that this tea was slightly out of my reach, but that it had been in my path…and I didn’t grab it. The tea came up in review circulation twice, and I never requested it. I never put two-and-two together until two years later.

I visited the De Vos Tea website to purchase some and found it only half-working. Every time I tried to make a purchase, the site would fizzle out. Yes, actually fizzle. I zapped them a message to see what was amiss, but never got a reply. About a month after that inquiry, the site disappeared – less than half of it showed up in search queries. I could only conclude that they went out of business.

There was only one thing left to do: Contact the actual tea estate. This would mark only the second time I’d ever sent a message to an estate directly without locating a retailer. The last time I did this was for the Bhartia estate’s Assam Green Tea. It worked out well that time, but I was still nervous.

Then a funny thing happened…

When I inquired about doing a feature on the oolong, I didn’t just receive a reply from their marketing guru. I also got one from the estate’s proprietor, Malinga Gunaratne. Achievement: Unlocked.

They agreed to send me a sample. A couple of months went by and it arrived. Oh my…

Takei

The package was huge.

IMAG1304

I tore it open that night. No, I didn’t care that I had to work the next day. This was for science! Or something.

The leaves resemble Da Hong Pao or a Georgian black tea – long, twisty, brown-to-soot-black. The aroma on these however was pure Ceylon, alternating between osthmanthus flowers and an indescribable earthy lean.

Sapphire-1

The first time I brewed this up (like…that same day), I did it Western-style. The 100-gram box it came in recommended about a teaspoon of leaves steeped in a cup for three-to-five minutes with boiled water. I approximated that.

The result was a jewel of a liquor – light crimson – with a surprisingly malty/roasty nose. Very odd for an oolong or a black tea. Almost as if it was struggling with a specific identity, or settling on its own uniqueness. The taste was a beautifully smooth, full-bodied experience. Pinpointing actual taster notes would be difficult. I will say that it gave off hints of nut, vanilla, lotus blossoms, and an Assam-like astringency toward the end. This was a morning person’s oolong, for certain.

Sapphire-3

A second infusion done the same way (but with a little more neglect) turned up a liquor with a winy note. Nothing like a little “wine” in the morning to get you started. Gotta love teas that let you make it up as you go along.

In the ensuing weeks, I decided to brew it gongfoolishly with a gaiwan and a few steeper cups. The results were thus:

Sapphire-2

First infusion (twenty seconds): A darker, amber-ish liquor resulted with an aroma of syrup-lathered chestnuts. The nutty aspect of the aroma translated to the taste with a bold profile of flowers, caramel and earth. Like a Ceylon OP but with more going on.

Second infusion (thirty-five seconds): The nutty aspects were a bit stronger, as was a malty lean toward the trail-off. This steep was more black tea in character than oolong. The subtle earthen qualities, however, emerged in the aftertaste.

Third infusion (fifty seconds): Probably the strongest oolong-ish presence emerged in this. Totally reminded me of a Da Hong Pao through-and-through…in the best possible way.

Of the two different approaches, I preferred the Western one. The oolong took on more Ceylon-ish notes when I did it that way – floral and fantastic. One of the best non-Taiwanese oolongs I’ve ever come across. And it only took me two years’ worth of hindsight to get to it.

And speaking of hindsight, I just realized the Handunugoda estate also puts out a cinnamon-smoked black Lapsang Souchong variant. Well, shoot. Guess that’s another one for The Tea WANT! List.

WANT-300x249

lazyliteratus

Tea blogger, professional cleaner of toilets, amateur people watcher.

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8 Comments

  1. What is this magical place? Sapphire oolong is far to intriguing, I’ll definitely need to hunt some down for myself. Your posts always add tea to my want list.

  2. That sounds like something out of a movie or video game, unreal… soil laced with tiny sapphires to grow tea? It seems your innocence was rewarded with a huge sample bag, so I guess the wait was worth it! I’m totally picturing 3 stopwatches just slightly out of the infusion photos.

    • I know, it does sound somewhat cinematic. I don’t know how much “oomph” it contributes to the tea…but it’s delicious; I’ll keep it! And stopwatches were involved in a fashion.

  3. Love the sapphire in the package!

  4. Is it for real?

    Apart from this cinematic move, I really like reading about your discoveries. You have a gift for finding really exotic teas.

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