Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

Tag: Castleton

What Makes a Moonlight Tea?

What makes a tea a “Moonlight” tea?

It’s a question I’ve asked myself several times over the last six years, and the one answer I’ve always returned to is, “I don’t care as long as it tastes good. “ But perhaps that was foolhardy. I originally assumed that when the name “Moonlight” was applied to a tea – particularly those from China – it was just for the namesake. Yunnan province’s Moonlight is called so because . . . well . . . that is the name. “Yue Guang Bai” translates to “Moonlight White”. Sure, it was also considered a style of white tea, but one that was only regionally specific. Because of this, I also thought that the same was true for Darjeeling.

I can name at least seven Darjeeling teas that have “moon” in their names. Glenburn Moonshine, Arya Moonbeam, Thurbo Moonlight, and – my favorite – Castleton Moonlight, to name just a few. Then a tea luminary I admired, Rajiv Lochan, blew my mind when he gave me this little tidbit of information. Moonlight wasn’t just a name for these Darjeeling teas; it was also a technique!

mind blown

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A Castleton Comparison

While this has easily been the worst summer of my life, there was an anniversary of sorts. One I had completely forgotten about until I received an e-mail from Vivek Lochan of Lochan Tea. It read: “In continuing with tradition, a sample of the 2015 Castelton Moonlight has been sent to you yesterday by courier.”

Whoah! I thought. Just a few days prior, I’d wondered how I was going to acquire some of that tea this year. For those that don’t know, Castleton Moonlight, second flush, is my absolute favorite tea. Of all time. I first fell in love with it in 2011. And I’ve made it a point to get a hold of it every year since. It’s an oolong from the Darjeeling tea estate dubbed Castleton. I did a full write-up on my history with that tea for the Lochans, which can be found HERE.

If I did get a hold of it, that would mark my fifth anniversary with said tea.

They were curious how this year’s stacked up against last year’s offering. And, truth be told, I was morbidly curious as well. Teas and tea types tend to growing season to growing season. Influences like weather, processing, and quality of the terroir all play a part, and all factors are never completely consistent year-to-year. From what I heard, Darjeeling second flush teas had a late start this year due to weather conditions.

I received the package a week later, and immediately tore into it. Keep in mind, this was at 6PM. Well beyond my usual “black tea” hour.

Moonlight loose

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Trippin’ on Moonlight

Some weeks back, I got a message from my cousin. He made an outright demand for “ADVENTURE!” Yes, in all caps. At first, he had a hankering to go to the Oregon Coast, particularly a brewery (or two) we had stopped at before. I suggested something a little more approachable – an idea we’d discussed in passing, the Columbia Gorge. There was a brewery on the Washington side of the river we had yet to hit. He jumped on that idea like it was a trampoline.

Photo by Bruce Berrien

Before leaving for parts un-sober, we grabbed burritos for lunch and did a quick run to Starbucks. My cuz happened to be the customer of the month at this place. They even had his picture framed, knew him by name, and cracked barbs with him like he was Norm from Cheers. So, both he and the baristas kinda looked at me funny when I only asked for hot water rather than tea or coffee. Like a true pretentious douche, I brought my own tea leaves in a do-it-yourself baggy. Worse still, I was all shifty about it.

Once we hit the highway – and I’d timed the coffee cup steep at three minutes (yes, I do that) – I took a sip of the contents. I’m not sure what happened, but I had a full-body euphoric reaction. It was like a lazy man’s outta body experience…’cept no one went anywhere.

My cousin looked over and said, “Jesus, man, you look like you had an orgasm.”

In a tea-ist – almost spiritual (and less messy) – sorta way, I did. The tea in question was a second flush Darjeeling that was sent to me by a Twitter friend in Darjeeling – one Benoy Thapa of Thunderbolt Tea. Who is he? Probably one of the nicest fellows I’ve ever e-met. That and the only motorcycle-riding, tea-field-diving, ponytail-donning, camera-weilding family man/tea vendor I’ve heard about. It was thanks to him that I was finally exposed to real Darjeeling tea in the first place – not just the dust found in teabags.

He sent me a peculiar tea from the Castleton tea estate. Said garden was named for a building in the neighboring city of Kurseong that looked like a castle. The fields were first planted in 1885 by a Brit named Dr. Charles Graham. At present, the estate is 70% British-owned and quite known for its Chinese varietals that produce a world-renowned second flush product.

The one I had in my possession – and the one that caused the full-bodied teagasm – was a different sort of offering. Unlike the other OPs produced, this was technically an oolong. I even asked my Thunderbolt contact what type it was and he confirmed it, saying that was the information he received from the current owner.

This was unlike any other second flush Darjeeling I’d encountered. Okay, I’ve said that on other occasions, but I really mean it this time! The leaves were the color of…um…forest? Yes, a veritable bouquet of colors you’d associate with that image – root brown, soil yellow, canopied tree green, and sun gold. I had a little trouble finding a comparison. Its anomalous aroma didn’t help, either. The scent brought feelings of fresh water streams, wild berries, lemons and honey. I know, this is sounding more metaphoric than olfactory; I’m sorry. This was difficult to pin down.

There weren’t any specific brewing instructions for this on the Thunderbolt site. Mr. Thapa – as mentioned above – said this was an oolong. Granted, during the trial sip, I went lowbrow with a coffee mug. This time, though, I figured the best way would be to give it a traditional oolong send-off. And I bought a new gaiwan for the occasion. (It’s a he, and his name is Guy-1.) I heated some water to just under a boil, and prepped four successive infusions – two at thirty seconds, two at forty – with 1 heaping teaspoon of leaves.

First infusion (thirty seconds): The liquor brewed light amber with a malty nose. (Very Indian.) The flavor possessed an herbaceous front that transitioned creamily to a vanilla-dipped grape crescendo before tapering off gently. A damn good start, if I do say so.

Second infusion (thirty seconds): The soup infused to a prime-gold color with an amber-ish periphery. It was lighter but also…shinier. As for taste, the initial sip was crisper than before, followed by a bolder middle profile kicking with lemon and apple. Very cider-like, except – y’know – without the fizz or mind-numbing parts.

Third infusion (forty seconds): Yep, still gold. However, the steam aroma changed its tune to something creamy and sweet – like actual vanilla was in there. That didn’t quite translate to taste, but it was still wonderful with a floral aspect appearing alongside the citrusy lean.

Fourth infusion (forty seconds): This was the lightest of the four infusions, but it was also the most obviously “oolong” of ‘em. The foretaste was still crisp, yet there was a rougher, mineral-like transition to the muscatel middle. I likened it to a Formosa Alishan.

Two more steeps followed the initial four, but I didn’t take notes on them. Needless to say, they were nifty. While it held up to a gongfu(-ish) approach quite well, I think the Western way gave it a one-time punch of perfection. Like a liquid rendition of a one-night stand. That isn’t to say the four short steeps weren’t awesome; they just weren’t dipped in awesome like the A-MURR-ican mega-steep.

As luck would have it, I had an opportunity through another vendor to try the first flush Moonlight. I liked it quite a bit, but it had nowhere near the nuance of the summertime cup that nearly road-tripped my tongue to tea-ish ecstasy. Without exaggeration or pontification, this was the best darned Darjeeling I have ever had. Worth a howl or two.

To buy Thunderbolt Tea’s Castleton Moonlight (2011 2nd Flush) go HERE.

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