Wednesday, September 30, 2015

New Teas - Mist on the River Green, Bubbling Spring Rolled Green, Ceylon Silver Tips

As I've said earlier, I try and put out new teas every week or so. On top of the new one's described below, I put out a new Ceylon OPA from the same Estate as the Ceylon Silver Tips below and a new green - Wulu Mountain Tribute Green. I'll put photos of those up soon, but for now, these are the three new teas this week at the cafe.

New Teas – September 30th, 2015

It seems we are blessed with an “Indian Summer” this fall, and to celebrate these days of warm sunshine and cool nights, we are pleased to offer three summer teas to keep the energy of summer going before the cold, dark days of winter arrive. The three new teas are all summer harvests from this year, two from China and one from Sri Lanka.

Mist on the River Green This is a classic summer green tea coming from Jiangxi Province in China. Grown on the hills surrounding Lake Poyang, China’s largest freshwater lake, this tea is a result of the unique micro-climate produced by the lake. As moisture evaporates from the lake and then cools as it rises into the surrounding hills, the nearby tea bushes benefit. Gently harvested, the leaves with abundant silver strands are slightly twisted to allow for a slower opening during the steep process. The result is a supple, rich flavored tea that is easy on the palate, and a primary example of a delicious, organic, summer green tea. 
A nice close-up shot of the slightly twisted leaves.

I brewed this cup loose in a pint glass, then poured through a filter. It is another way to let the leaves fully open without using a gaiwan.

Small leaves, obviously a smaller leaf varietal.

Fully opened and fresh.

Bubbling Spring Rolled Green Despite the name, this is a summer green tea, coming from Zhejiang Province in China. Harvested in the early growth season of summer, the leaves are gently rolled and then pan-fired, resulting in small rolled pellets. However, once brewed, the pellets transform to reveal the tender yellow-green bud-sets of the early summer harvest. The fresh, sweet flavor is accompanied by hints of stone-fruit, with a pure, clean aftertaste. 
Tightly rolled balls, almost green-silvery in appearance.

Very fast steepings on this tea - 10-20 seconds at most.

A more uniform leave serration structure then on the Mist on the River Green above.

Opened, but still ready for more steepings as evidenced by the still folded leaves.

Ceylon Silver Tips A rare white tea from Sri Lanka consisting purely of slender, slightly curved silver buds. Harvested from the Maliboda gardens in the Kegalle district, this rare white tea has the gentlest hints of citrus-spice with subtle sweetness, along with floral notes at the finish. A perfect afternoon tea for these warm, fall days. 
A delicious Silver Tips, but not as many micro-hairs as on the Chinese one's we usually get.

A very light brew, but ever so sweet and fruity.

Since these are just buds, you can tell that by the leaf size, these are from the Assamica varietal.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Zomba Pearls - A Unique "White" Tea from Malawi

"Situated about halfway between Mulanje and Blantyre, Thyolo - pronounced Cholo - is the tea capital of Malawi, and one of the oldest towns in the country. ... The main tourist focus in the Thyolo area is Satemwa Tea Estate, which was one of the first European land claims registered in Malawi, dating back to 1874, and has been in the same family since 1923, when it was acquired by Maclean Kay, a rubber planter from Malaya" (Briggs, 2013, p. 225).

The other day I had the chance to taste one of the more unique "white" teas I've ever had - the Zomba Pearls from the Satemwa Tea Estate. These intricately and tightly wound pearls were from the 2015 spring harvest, and I was highly intrigued to try them out. I have been searching for a couple good teas from Africa to fill out our tea selection at the cafe, but since most of my sources focus on China, Taiwan, and India I don't have a good starting point. I normally associate African teas with Kenya and Tanzania - except for Rooibos, which comes from South Africa - and was surprised to learn that Malawi has teas. Just goes to show how little I know!

It turns out, as I was researching Malawi and the Satemwa Tea Estate, that Malawi has the oldest tea culture in all of Africa. As part of the East India Company's search for new tea sources after losing the monopoly over the China tea trade at the turn of the 19th century, tea was planted in almost all of Britain's colonies. Seeds from the Royal Botanical Gardens in South Africa were planted in South Africa and Malawi, but they did not survive. Next, seeds from the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh were brought over and planted in 1878 - those survived and started the tea industry in Malawi. Now, that was at the height of the colonial period, and many of the tea estates in Malawi have changed hands since then, so it is hard to figure out exactly what tea varietal is currently planted on what estate. I have a query out concerning the tea plants on the Satemwa Tea Estate, and when I hear back I will update this post, but my assumption is that it is a clonal Assamica variety, based on the flavor of the tea and the size of the leaves.

[Update 9/26/2015 - I heard back from Tealet, who is now bringing in Satemwa teas to the U.S. Here is what they said: "The Malawi teas are from a mix of varietals developed over the years, majority Assamica and minority Sinensis. The Assamica teas were first brought in by Scottish growers - I'm not sure if Satemwa's material is sourced particularly from the Edinburgh Gardens, but some of Malawi's teas do trace back to there. Later cultivars were developed by the Tea Research Foundation of Central Africa: This is similar to Taiwan's Tea Research Extension Station, where the researchers help bring in new plant material and also help develop cultivars that are well-suited to the environment."]

"By 1995, 16% of the crop [in Malawi] was clonal tea. Estimates for 2004 predict 26% of the harvest will be under new clones" (Hall. 2000. Chapter 5, p. 25). Assamica varietals are not known for their white teas, even though every year I see more and more of them coming to market from India. Located on the slopes of Thyolo Mountain at an elevation of roughly 4,000' the Satemwa Tea Estate has produced a unique "white" tea called Zomba Pearls that seems to fit in with this trend.

Now, I don't know if giving a review is the right thing to do - tea is so unique, and a positive or negative review largely depends on the drinkers personal preferences, the water they use to brew the tea, the temperature of that water, steep times, and more. The way I brew tea may result in one flavor profile, while the way you brew tea may result in another. As such, I think reviews don't quite work with tea. That doesn't mean a nice presentation of a unique tea is not worthy of a post - on the contrary, it demands it.

The Zomba Pearls close up - very tightly woven together.

This is from the second steeping - they are not even close to opening up.

The leaves produced a nice liquor with an interesting flavor profile of green beans, cucumber, and the ever so slight flavorings of dried fruit.

One of the leaves fully opened - good size, looks like an Assamic clonal varietal to me.
Each one of the little "pearls" is made individually by hand. In order for the pearls to be formed, the freshly plucked leaves are not gathered in a basket as is typical on most tea estates, but rather each leaf is carefully layered on top of the other in the field so that the leaves are not damaged and can be stored fresh and cool. After 24 hours of withering, the leaves are rolled by hand and then immediately dried. That is the only processing that takes place, and it is for this reason that the tea is called a "white" tea. However, as one can see from the size of the leaves above, it is not a tea produced from the initial first buds that make up white teas in China. Rather, it looks to me to be a fairly mature leaf, so I would classify the tea as a green and not a white. But that begs the question - do you classify tea based on harvest time or the amount of processing that takes place with the leaves, or both?

The Zomba Pearls are certainly a unique tea, and if you are looking for something that can handle many, many steepings, this might be it. The pearls were not even fully open after 6 steepings in a gaiwan, and the liquor and flavor was still there just as in the first steeping. As a tea buyer I have to think about my customers and how this tea would do in the cafe. I might buy a pound or two depending on the price, but I think only tea connoisseurs or those who are adventurous in their tea drinking will select this tea - your everyday drinker might not know how to categorize it since they generally prefer a standard green or a strong black.

Sources Cite:

Briggs, Philip. 2013. Malawi. Bradt Travel Guides, Sixth Edition.

Hall, Nick. 2000. The Tea Industry. Cambridge, UK: Woodhead Publishing.

Friday, September 18, 2015

New Teas In The Cafe - Risheehat First Flush Darjeeling, Jin Xuan Oolong, Wood Dragon Oolong

Each couple weeks I put out new teas, often reflecting the mood of the season. For this round, it was oolongs to embrace the start of the fall here in Colorado. These are here only for a limited time, as I usually only order a couple pounds, so I try and feature them so that our customers are aware of them.

New Teas – September 11, 2015

Fall brings our attention to the last days of summer and the first hints of winter – cool crisp mornings, warm days, and clear, relaxing nights. Oolong teas are similar to fall, with their aromas and flavors offering a mix of the growth and abundance associated with summer and the coolness and crispness associated with winter. To celebrate, we are pleased to offer three new oolongs:

  • Risheehat First Flush Darjeeling The Risheehat Estate, located in the north of the Darjeeling District, produces one of the finest First Flush Darjeelings available. 100% organic, this First Flush oolong* showcases why Darjeelings are recognized as the Champaign of Teas. Light and fruity, with hints of warm, floral notes that remind us of early summer days, this oolong is perfect as an afternoon tea on these last days of summer. *I refer to First Flushes as oolongs simply because they are not oxidized all the way, and tend to be closer to an oolong in that regard then a true black, such as a Second Flush or Assam. I know some people will not agree, but if we are looking at whites to blacks on a scale of oxidization, then First Flushes would fall in the oolong category, not in the black category.
    First Flush Risheehat Darjeeling from 2015
  • Jin Xuan Oolong Coming from the Wushe Mountains in Nantou County, Taiwan, this Jin Xuan has been expertly crafted to merge the transition from summer to fall. Produced by the Chou family, this tea was harvested in the spring from the Jin Xuan cultivar, before being lightly steamed over milk to create a fresh, sweet, creamy flavor with a smooth, full texture. A warming oolong, this tea is excellent for cool fall days that herald the colder months to come.
    Jin Xuan from Nantou, Taiwan - Beautifully shaped.

    The first steeping - the milky flavor is pronounced, but mellows with each steeping.

    Size comparison of unrolled leaves.
  • Wood Dragon Oolong – A unique tea specifically made for one of our suppliers, Wood Dragon oolong comes from the same cultivar and area as our Jin Xuan above. However, that is where the similarity ends. Wood Dragon is 20% oxidized, medium roasted, made entirely by hand from the twigs and stems of the tea bush. Relatively low in caffeine, this fiery and nutty oolong is perfect for the longer nights and shorter days that fall brings.
    Wood Dragon - Coming from the Jin Xuan varietal.

    A delicious woodsy, roasting, toasty flavor.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Drunk On Darjeeling - Tasting Six First Flush Darjeelings From 2015

Here in the café, I work hard to have thirty or more fresh teas available to our customers at any time. These teas naturally vary by season depending on when the freshest teas arrive, but trying to keep a representative selection available can be a challenge. One tea that is essential to have on hand is a fine First Flush Darjeeling. Although many tea drinkers in the United States are not familiar with Darjeelings, except perhaps those who have a passion for tea and have explored the genre for a while, it is important to always have a good First Flush on hand for those who do appreciate a fine tea.

To help educate our clientele, I host tea tastings every couple weeks, and today I hosted “Drunk on Darjeeling” – a tasting of six First Flush Darjeelings from this springs harvest. The idea was to not only share some amazing tea with those who may be interested, but to also allow people to directly taste the various subtleties associated with terroir, cultivars, and harvests. The six First Flushes were from the following Estates: Castleton, Margaret’s Hope, Rohini, Singbulli, Jungpana, and Risheehat.

Map of the Darjeeling District in West Bengal, India with Estates tried in the tasting.
However, one cannot simply just put teas out and let people drink them. Well, you can, but perhaps that is not the best way to run a tasting. For me, I like to provide some background to the experience, giving a bit of history of the region and the tea itself. It is not a full blown lecture, but giving people a bit of the background of the tea they are drinking helps place the tea, and allows the individual to have a more intimate experience with the beverage.

Darjeeling is a complex tea and region, with a long history (although not as long as China’s!) involving imperialism, colonialism, ethnic conflicts, and political intrigue. All of it is important, but it is also possible to skip over many of the subtleties and provide a nice, general overview of the region and tea to ground the tea drinker and to allow them to appreciate the history of the leaves that have produced the amazing drink they are imbibing in.

The tale for Darjeeling tea can start at the beginning of the 1800s with the British. The British Empire was on the search for appropriate areas and regions to grow tea, as they were afraid that the tea trade from China would soon be cut off as there were indications that “China would follow the lead of Japan and break off all trading connections with the West.” (Dozey, 1922; p. 193). Up until this point, China had dominated the tea trade to Europe, and the East India Company had the monopoly of the tea trade to Britain.

The tea tasting set up - six First Flush Darjeeling's from 2015 harvest.
However, at the turn of the 19th century the East India Company lost its monopoly in the tea trade from China, and so it began to search for new areas to secure and control. "From its original introduction into use in Europe the supply of tea had been a Chinese monopoly, and the trade in it to England had been a monopoly of the East India Company. In the early part of the nineteenth century, on the renewal of its charter, the East India Company lost its trading monopoly, and as the trade in tea was one of the most valuable parts of its activities, it became anxious to obtain a rival supply entirely within its own control. As a result, great anxiety arose for the production of tea in India, if such production were by any means possible" (Mann, 1931; p. 470).

As such, the East India Company cast out for rival sources of the plant, including exploring Brazil, the island of St. Helena, Java, Sumatra, and other places. One such place was the Assam area of India, specifically the Brahmaputra River and surrounding lands, where in 1834 samples of the indigenous plant from the region were sent to Major Bruce – a commander of gunboats in Assam. The samples proved to be promising, and as a result, the British Government worked to further the tea culture in Assam, and Major Bruce was appointed Superintendent of this industry. The East India Company was excited, for although tea plants flourished in other areas of the Empire, no tolerable tea could be produced from them.

“The first tolerable samples of tea which were manufactured by primitive methods (i.e., dried over charcoal fires and according to the process used for black tea) and forwarded to Calcutta early in 1836, and amongst others were pronounced by Lord Auckland, who had also tasted the brew, to be of good quality” (Doey, 1922; p. 195). This variety of Camellia – Camellia sinensis var. assamica, was indigenous to the area and proved to be a hardy producer of tea.

And thus the tea industry in Assam was born. As Britain looked to India to fulfill its demand for tea, it turned away from China and the offerings coming from that region. Now, there is a whole long story to tea in Assam, but here we are concerned about Darjeeling and its tea.

The calm before the storm...
Darjeeling is a small district in the northern most corner of West Bengal in the eastern foothills of India near the Himalaya Mountains, right next to Assam. At the time, the area was just on the outskirts of the British Empire, and after the Anglo-Gorkha war of 1814, much of the area was restored to the Chogyal of Sikkim. As a note of thanks, the Chogyal (monarch) of Sikkim (today an Indian State bordering Nepal) gave 138 square miles, including the hill of Darjeeling to the British East India Company. This was in 1835, and four years later an event would transpire that would change Darjeeling forever.

On January 10th, 1839, 8 chests containing 350lbs of Assam tea were sold at auction by the East India Company at the Commercial sales rooms, Mincing Lane, consisting primarily of “Souchong” and “Pekoe”. As a result of the smashing success of this auction, Dr. Chapman obtained sanction to give the Chinese variety (Camillea sinensis var. sinensis) of tea plant a chance, and accordingly the first lot of seeds and plants were imported into Darjeeling in 1841. After some initial trial and error, it was found that the Chinese variety of Camillea did quite well in Darjeeling, and the tea produced from the leaves proved to be exceptionally good. The rest, as they say, is history, and Darjeeling now produces the Champaign of Tea across 78 Estates stretching 18 miles north to south and 16 miles east to west.

As mentioned above, the tea tasting I hosted had this year’s First Flush harvest from six Estates: Margaret’s Hope, Castleton, Rohini, Jungpana, Singbulli, and Risheehat. All of these Estates produce First Flush and Second Flush teas, as well as special Darjeelings (such as Moonshine, Crescendo, Monsoon, etc.). All Estates grow some version of the Chinese Camillea – Camillea sinensis var. sinensis (there are many sub-varieties known as clonals, with names such as TK71, Khunz, etc.) while Assam tea comes from the indigenous Camillea sinensis var. assamica (which also has clonal varieties). Below is a quick summary of each Estate:

Margaret's Hope First Flush SFTGFOP-1 Darjeeling
Margaret’s Hope gardens were first planted in 1862, although in my research I found other dates including 1870. The “official” date can be hard to pin down, as ownership has changed and non-productive bushes and areas of land have been pulled and cleared. Today, Margaret’s Hope Estate covers 1,448 acres of beautiful hills in the Kurseong North Valley. We tasted the Margaret’s Hope First Flush SFTGFOP-1, Lot #DJ-6.

Castleton First Flush FTGFOP-1 Darjeeling
The Castleton area was laid out in 1871, but research indicates that today’s bushes were planted in 1885. The Estate covers 788 acres in the Kurseong South Valley. Both of these Estates are owned by the Goodricke Group, who also own Barneseg and Thurbo, as well as Estates in Assam and Dooars. Both Estates continue to produce excellent teas, and are well regarded by Darjeeling connoisseurs.  We tasted the Castleton First Flush FTGFOP-1, Lot #DJ-4.

Rohini Euphoria First Flush FTGFOP-1 Darjeeling
“In 1962, the year of the Sino-India conflict when China abruptly launched a two-pronged attack along the high Himalayan border it shares with India and occupied part of Assam for a month, India’s military took over Rohini’s land, closed the garden, and converted it into an army base. Nearly 80 percent of the tea bushes were torn out” (Koehler, 2015, p. 179). For the Rohini Estate, covering 341 acres in the Kurseong South Valley, it was not until 1995 that the land was returned, but only 81 acres still had tea plants on it. Thus, many of the plants on the Rohini Estate are considered to be “young.” My bet is that other Estates suffered the same during the Sino-India conflict, although not as badly since they were not converted to army bases. We tasted the Rohini Euphoria First Flush FTGFOP-1, Lot #DJ-3.

Jungpana First Flush FTGFOP-1 Darjeeling
The Jungpana Estate, covering just under 500 acres, was owned by the Nepalese royal Rana family until being sold to the Kejriwals in 1956. When the first plants were planted on the Estate is hard to know, although research indicates it was in 1899, but with south-facing gardens located in the Mahananda West Valley, Jungpana has produced some of the most sought after Darjeelings. It is interesting to note that the Jungpana Estate is on extremely steep land, and still today all harvests must be carried down the mountains, across a river, and up a steep path by porters to reach a dirt road – there is are no roads that access the Estate bushes. We tasted Jungpana First Flush FTGFOP-1, Lot #DJ-14.

Singbulli Organic First Flush FTGFOP-1 Darjeeling
The Singbulli Estate is a “newer” estate, planted in 1924 and covering 1,171 acres in the Mirik Area across 9 rolling hills. Although the area is known for its summer lake resort in recent years, the Singbulli Estate has worked to create delicious organic, sustainable tea. The Estate is owned by Jayshree Tea and Industries, along with the Tukvar (Puttabong), Sungma, North Tukvar, Balasm, and Risheehat Estates. We tasted Singbulli Organic First Flush FTGFOP-1, Lot #DJ-10.

Risheehat First Flush SFTGFOP-1 Darjeeling
The Risheehat Estate, located in the Darjeeling East Valley not far from the city of Darjeeling itself, covers a small area of only 256 acres. Planted in the mid-1800s, the Risheehat Estate – which means “Home of Holy Saints” – is known for its organic First and Second Flush Darjeelings. We tasted Risheehat First Flush SFTGFOP-1, Lot #DJ-1.

The Tasting

For the tasting, I prefer to use gaiwans. Although perhaps not the “correct” method for brewing an Indian tea, I love gaiwans and believe they provide the easiest way for people to smell, see, brew, and enjoy tea. The tea was poured through a filter and then served in small tasting cups. Water was originally heated to 198 degrees, coming from glaciers high in the mountains before being filtered in our café. By the time it was used to brew the tea, it was right around 190 degrees. I brewed the first round for each tea, steeping the leaves for only 20-30 seconds. After all teas had been tasted, I opened up the brewing to everyone so that they could experiment with different brewing times (I prefer a quick steep with lots of leaves, others like less leaves but a longer steep time – to each their own). Discussions ensued, tea was tasted, and we all became “Drunk on Darjeeling.”

References Cited

Dozey, E.C.; 1922, A Concise History of the Darjeeling District Since 1835. Calcutta, N. Mukherjee.

Koehler, Jeff; 2015, Darjeeling: The Colorful History and Precarious Fate o the World’s Greatest Tea. New York, Bloomsbury.

Mann, Harold H.; 1931, The Indian Tea Industry in its Scientific Aspects, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Vol. 79 (4089): 469-483.

Lots of websites were also consulted, including those of the Estates themselves when available. Sorry, I didn’t list them all – plus it gives you something to investigate on your own!

* If I got anything wrong, please leave a comment and let me know so that I can correct it. Thanks!