Tuesday, May 24, 2016

India Black Teas

Egads! What am I doing with 70 samples of India teas?   For various pathological reasons, I have been drinking a lot of subpar bagged English blends in the morning.  I fell into a strange dichotomy. Whereas I will spend some serious mental energy selecting, brewing, obsessing over China teas,  I treat India teas as a basic commodity like milk that I grab off the supermarket shelves.

I cannot reliably start the day without a dark tea- my brain needs something uncomplicated and strong to wake up.  China hongchas (imperial dianhongs, lapsang souchong), shus and darker roasted yanchas and oolongs have become too mentally stimulating on a weekday and so I have reverted to India black teas as my morning workhorse tea.   I'm not trying to overturn my sinophile bias but I want to put a moderate amount of effort finding a supplier in India for higher quality leaf.

Drinking ageable China teas like puerh reflexively engage my prefrontal cortex from early conditioning. For the first few years of drinking puerh, most sessions became a fatiguing and somewhat frustrating exercise in long term planning. My mind was constantly evaluating aging/hoarding potential of a tea. Even if I want to, it's nigh impossible now to turn my analytical brain off with such teas.  But for India teas, I am blissfully immune.  Pretty good India teas are readily available so I just drink it and enjoy.  

I have been recently trying to avoid decision fatigue in the morning in an attempt to simplify my life.  Our decision making ability deteriorates with each choice made throughout the day regardless of importance and you don't want to blow your cartridge too early on inconsequential matters.  My husband wisely has only two different kinds of socks while yours truly considers socks an integral part of a fully color coordinated outfit and hence I make terrible late night purchasing decisions. A box of 70 tea choices could potentially wreak havoc.  However I find that because I am laid back about India teas,  I randomly pick something and am generally satisfied.  I just keep a booklet of gold stars and smiley stickers in the box to keep track of which teas stood out.

I had planned to try out a different India based vendor like teabox but got lazy and went again with Vahdam/Golden Tips as they carry a much larger selection of samplers.   In my second order, I got the summer flush sampler,  Assam party pack,  a chai sampler, various Earl Greys, and some Nilgiri.  The experience has been an altogether a pleasant way to drop a hundo- and really you could not get this kind of variety and quality with China teas for a hundred.


Egads! What am I doing with a mass produced slip-cast teapot lithographed with songbirds? It's probably a few decades too early for me to be going in this direction.  One late ebay night,  I found this English Heron Cross teapot for my husband to commemorate a pair of wrens nesting in our backyard. I excitedly mistook a mating pair of thrushes illustrated on the bottom to be wrens. Even with this misidentification, the husband (a bird lover) could not help but approve this pot after an obligatory interrogation on why we needed another pot.  

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Turzum's Enigma Black

 Behold the Turzum Enigma Spring Black. Yes black.



If you knew nothing about current first flush processing of Darjeeling,  you would be confused how a white tea got mixed up in your black tea sample.  Even the furry whites of the dry leaves looked like someone had sprinkled bai mu dan straight into the mix. You might wonder if this discrepancy is the meaning behind the name. It wrongly brings to mind the controversial case of Rachel Dolezal who was forced to step down from the NAACP for falsely representing herself as an African American.  Dolezal insisted she "identified as black" although she was born white.

First flush black Darjeelings now either skip or undergo the briefest oxidation process to bring forth their delicate flavors.  It seems to be internet tea gospel that this practice was driven by market demand from Germany and Japan for lighter teas.  teasnob pegs this trend as occurring in the last 10-15 years while this vendor post attributes the initial trigger to Germans as early as 1960s and 70s .  

Probably both are right and the lightening of first flushes may have happened in multiple phases. Many of these first flushes feel significantly under-processed compared to those I drank 15 years ago but since I haven't drunk first flush Darjeeling in 15 years, I don't know if the switch was more gradual.   Because producing green and white tea is relatively new to Darjeeling compared to the Chinese who have been at it for centuries, some of the tea estates haven't quite gotten it right. A few of my samples taste awkward and could not hold a candle to quality lu cha.  This organic Enigma is ripping my stomach with it's slow burn astringency which I did not detect in the cup. The Castleton Classic was also a bust unless you need a dry mouth.

I don't subscribe to this new fangled regime of minimal processing.  Some light fermentation brings out the complexity in Darjeeling  and thus far the samples with slightly more fermentation has been superior to all the white and green "style" first flushes.  The Goomtee Muscatel has been the standout but I am only on sample #7 out of 36.

What to do with all these bags of under oxidized Darjeeling?  My ever reliable husband states they are fine for him.  I might use a few pinches here and there when I make my afternoon blends but I am hopeful more gems may be hiding in this first flush party pack.  I realize that delicate lady teas like Darjeeling have a limited scope in my tea life because the role of hongcha in my day is to knock my noggin awake in the mornings.   I had better go in search of something stronger, maybe a Nilgiri that is said to be a real man's tea. 

Friday, May 13, 2016

Revisiting Darjeeling

In a rare moment of weakness last Saturday morning, I was seduced by the potential thrill of swimming in Darjeeling.


Last month I spotted Jeff Koehler's monotome on Darjeeling during my weekly trip to the library. I chuffed exactly in a way any puerh drinker might in seeing the over-capitalized tagline "the WORLD'S GREATEST TEA".   I checked this book out solely to see how the author would go about staking such a grandiose claim but of course for an empiricist like me, only a thorough taste test will validate or invalidate such hyperbole.

Koehler's historical narrative behind the formation of the Indian tea industry is what I found most compelling out of his 230 pages.  Breathless reporting of record busting auction prices- not so much.  No puerh head is gonna get impressed by two thousand dollars for a kilo of tea- that's just a ho-hum $45 a pot.  If monetary price is any measure of value- clearly the WORLD'S GREATEST TEA is PUERH!!!

Darjeeling tea trees are not native to Darjeeling but descend from tea seeds and plants smuggled out of Bohea Hills or Fujian in 1848-1851 by Scottish botanist and adventurer Robert Fortune.  His was one of multiple attempts for the British to grow their own tea instead of draining their national gold reserves to the Chinese for this wildly popular beverage.  Building a tea industry from scratch to supply the nation was a slow going business and the British were savvy enough to recruit a few willing Chinese tea manufacturers to jumpstart the endeavor .  Unfortunately the Opium Wars raged on long before India eventually supplanted China as the England's top tea producer.

The specimens of Camellia sinensis var sinensis first smuggled out of China in 1830s by an earlier party did poorly in the sweltering heat of India low lands but the British had stumbled on the fact that India already had a native tea plant Camelia sinensis var assamica (yes the very same variety of our beloved puerh).  The massive tea trees grew wild in the jungle and the hill tribes that "brewed" this tea were not altogether happy to aid the British.  Despite all the struggles of clearing jungles and work force  dropping from malaria and other tropical diseases,  it's this coarser larger leaf variety that has come to dominate Indian tea production and culture.

One of the most intriguing passages  in the book comes from the very first FAQ published in the english language about tea growing in 1838.  I leave you the title to explain itself-  "An Account of the Manufacture of the Black Tea as Now Practised at Suddeya in Upper Assam, by the Chinamen Sent Thither for That Purpose. With Some Observations on the Culture of the Plant in China and Its Growth in Assam" by Charles A Bruce (available free on Google Books).




Koehler's book included the first question and answer and I was happy to track down the second statement about hongcha's shelf life.  Since I find hongchas and roasted yanchas more pleasurable after the second year with the brashness mellowed out,  I was happy to see this confirmed.

So back to Darjeeling tea- the Chinese transplants thrived in the niche ecosystem of the south eastern range of the Himalayas of about 70 square miles or 48 thousand acres. Because Darjeeling is so geographically limited with 87 tea estates, it is a tea genre you can readily access and wrap your head around.  From a puerh drinker perspective- it's refreshing to know you can sample a large part of the region's best offerings for even less than the price of a new Yiwu beeng.

Enter my large box of tea not from Kunming Post.  For a price cheaper than my lunch last Sunday,  I have 10 grams each of 31 first flushes with free express shipping from India(3 day turnaround). I had tried Golden Tips assam sent to me by Emmett and so bought from this same vendor with confidence. This collection includes from top tea estates you might recognize- 
  • Giddapahar 
  • Goomtee- I see this is a Hojo choice
  • obligatory Castleton- yes the moonlight first flush
  • obligatory Glenburn
  • Margaret's Hope- tea estate with the most tear jerker name and a good mother's day gift
  • Singbulli
  • Sungma- yes the Adagio supplying Sungma, I won't hold it against this sample
  • Thurbo
  • Arya (Mariage Frères)
  • organic Okayti- Mighty Leaf used to carry them
Noticeably absent are Ambootia and Maikaibari- the two I do remember treasuring around the new millennium but this first flush party pack does not appear to be lacking.  They threw in a clonal, Long Ding, and two Nepalese estates.

The first flush has delicacy and a certain shyness.  If you don't like the touch of silk, the second summer flush is stronger but autumn may be the strongest of the  Darjeeling flushes. I used to prefer the first flush because if I wanted stronger- I would go all the way with assam!  Of course a second flush party pack is planned forthwith- it's just that I felt sheepish about putting in a 3 figure order.  No act of tea restraint goes unpunished.  I ordered from the old Golden Tips site on the morning that they appeared to have rolled out a new website under vahdamteas.com with slightly higher prices.  The samplers I was going to purchase are no longer offered. It's situations like this that turns on my tea over-buying switch.  

I started with a gentle Phuguri autumn flush from a different Darjeeling sampler(ahem, ahem) this morning- undeniably lovely and enjoyable.  If Darjeeling is the champagne of teas, puerh surely must be scotch.  And those who drink scotch do not gush over champagne. I have to admit I don't know why I would have forgotten or resisted tea that is so disarmingly easy to drink, delicious and inexpensive (by puerh standards).  I stopped drinking Darjeeling soon after I took up with puerh but everything comes in cycles and thanks to a chance encounter with this book I'm enticed to give Darjeeling another go.


Friday, May 06, 2016

A Serviceable Travel Kettle

After decades of grousing about making do with meagre hotel tea making facilities,  I've finally procured an acceptable travel kettle spurred on by a recent trip to New York City.  For $320 a night, one cannot expect too much in midtown Manhattan and a mere $35 investment provided the luxury of piping hot tea in my jammies before bedtime and first thing in the morning.

I had the option of two competing water heater designs on Amazon,  half size kettles like this one or an immersion heating element which would be lighter but looked like an inevitable burn hazard. The most common problem with a bare heating element is burning it out with careless dry boiling.  Just read the complaints and it's clear carefully immersing the entire rod in water is too much of a challenge for most humans.

My Unold half liter kettle performed admirably with a stainless steel interior providing water without any off flavors.  Despite hopes for excellence if not reliablity in German engineering, the shutoff is confusing. It is supposed to automatically shutoff 5 seconds after boiling but it did not appear to be the case so I manually popped the cord off after boil. Also this thing is a bulky 2 pounder but the benefits clearly outweigh any negatives and I am planning to lug it to Chicago at the end of this month with a proper tea kit. It's not my dream kettle but it's good enough that I am moderately grateful I finally have a travel worthy kettle.


My New York trip was all in the service of my eleven year old niece helping her knock out the top three off her bucket list- NYC, the Statue of Liberty and a Yankees game. When you travel with a child, you eventually become a zombie servant.  If I was a rehabbed addict, I might certainly have relapsed.  Almost every child requires extraordinary inhuman efforts to raise to adulthood and I have to salute parents willing to submit to such modern forms of slavery.

As an adult- the night pleasures of the city are many but I was limited to those places where you can legally take a child. I choose our hotel as it was directly across the street from the MOMA in hopes of squeezing in a few visits. I have feeble notions of art being the redemption of humankind and I had some half baked hopes parading the last centuries finest art before my niece's eyes might enlighten her jaded mind.

The current exhibit at the MOMA was Degas for which I was expecting endless scenes of ballerinas with tulle tutus or naked backs of plump ladies.  However when my eyes spied these landscapes,  I literally gasped as did my mother.  All the travails of NYC battling the masses starting from Penn Station evaporated.



Degas painted these experimental landscapes around 1890s past his mid fifties when his vision had deteriorated severely.  He had long been an insufferable hostile curmudgeon and even had dissed landscapists with fighting words like
“If I were the government I would have a special brigade of gendarmes to keep an eye on the people who paint landscapes from nature.” 

 However these landscapes were exquisite in their seemingly abstract dabs of color.   As seeing how happy my mother and I were before these paintings, my niece promised to buy me one of these when she becomes a billionaire.


Friday, January 22, 2016

Chinatown Treasures

I was wandering around Downtown Oakland when I spied more than a jian of puerh on the top shelf of a new dried seafood super store. One does not behold such a sight very often in the States- that many tongs in retail nor that many jars of dried seafood critters in the $1000 to $2000 per pound range.


The dried fishy aromas wafting out the door of the store were so powerful, I had to compel myself to go inside to investigate. You can see beneath the tongs a row of various beengs (shu and sheng) in open gift boxes.  I would imagine the dried seafood odors have irrevocably infused into the oils of the tea. 

I'm sure a lot of these dried up sea cucumbers will end up at a new year's banquet if not a Chinese wedding banquet.  I really wish I was in the market to buy one with this kind of selection available, but like any Korean, I like my cukes raw and crunchy- preferably freshly dead.  Since I've seen sea cucumbers plentifully littering the ocean floor while snorkeling, I would not dream of spending good money on one but I spent a good 10 minutes trying to figure out which sea cucumber I would take home with me.

Here is a situation not unlike puerh buying in the old days. There are a few scant english websites guiding you(here and here) on how to buy a sea cucumber but you can't really gauge the quality and texture until after you buy and reconstitute it.  Then you have to contend with overpriced misrepresented sea cucumbers to outright fake counterfeit sea cucumbers made with konjac jelly. Vendor trust while important I think only goes so far.  Much of the shorelines of the world are unfortunately polluted and so one can't know what kind of pollutants lurk inside a bottom feeder like a sea cucumber. 

How to choose a sea cucumber when you are confronted with a vast range of grades from $20-$2000. The big leap in price is differentiated by culinary use vs. medicinal use as $1000+ cukes possess magical anti-cancer properties.  Even so,  I think it's easier and cheaper to become a sea cucumber connoisseur than pursuing puerh.