Thursday, April 30, 2009

REVIEW: The Tea Spot, Vintage Oolong


The Web site reads:
Our Vintage Oolong is a pure Taiwanese, single–estate, medium–bodied oolong. With a sweet, nutty flavor, this tea captures the subtlety of what amazing, full–leaf tea should taste like. Hints of ripe apricots and lilacs combine to produce a tender, timeless green oolong; hence the name! This tea yields a bright, amber liquor and should be re–steeped multiple times. Each successive steeping will unveil new flavors & aromas, until the leaves are fully opened. Delicate, refined, and understated - this is the true connoisseur’s tea!
My only complaint is that the Tea Spot people didn't let us know on their Web site which vintage this tea is, nor which field is comes from, nor what time of year it was picked. For my personal education in tea, I long for this information.

Because this is a green oolong, and it's fairly dense (the leaves are small crumpled balls, rather than long twists), I will use 1 tsp with 1 cup filtered water, boiled and allowed to cool to 90C, for 2 minutes, in Great-Grandma's Japanese porcelain teapot. Well, that was the plan. In practice, a sudden interruption meant that I actually ended up steeping for 3 minutes, which is a bit long for a green oolong, in my opinion. Let's see how it worked out.

These leaves when dry are highly fragrant, green smelling, with nutty and floral notes. The very tightly bunched, little balls opened up upon steeping into beautiful, large leaves of a very rich, summery-dark grass green. They have a buttery, rich scent, almost like buttered popcorn or rich cooked greens.

This tea has a terrifically golden cup, transparent and very shiny. Drunk very hot, the flavor is a bit difficult to discern-- slightly woody, with a mineral tone. As the tea cools, the flavors start to show up on the scene: a floral flavor, sweet like lavender, perhaps, but quite subtle, with green grass and hay. There is a dry, grassy or woody mouthfeel, which nicely counterpoints the sweetness of the aroma. The flora aroma and flavor continue to develop as the cup cools, creating a very complex experience for me.

As I say every time, I always love to try the second cup in the first infusion, because time and heat have allowed the tea to oxidize further and develop its flavors more fully. For this tea, the second cup is definitely drier than it was before, and the flavor is fully-formed, with great floral, grass, and wood notes. This tea has distinctly green characteristics-- grass, hay, dryness-- with a fruitiness as of maybe apricot or peach, which is that semi-oxidized oolong character.

Even though I don't know where the tea is from, it's still quite lovely, and the fragrance is really quite something.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Great Read: "The Conscientious Consumer," by Thomas Leons

In the wonderful tea magazine, The Leaf, which I just discovered (and please do go there yourself), I found this article:

It is a must-read for those of us who want to grow and mature our understanding of tea.

REVIEW: Tea Gschwendner Formosa Fancy Taifu Oolong

Photo from the lovely Web site,

TeaGschwendner Formosa Fancy Taifu Oolong, 2008

This offering by TeaGschwendner is the winner of the 2008 Best Dark Oolong, from the 2008 World Tea Championship.

The Fancy Superior grade is bestowed only upon exquisite, tippy teas such as the Taifu. Known as “Five Color Tea,” northern Taiwanese Oolongs are oxidized around roughly 60% and take on various hues of brown—from beige to sienna. The Taifu is a heady cup, a nuanced sketch of wood and stewed plum. Infuse multiple times.

The dry leaves in hot pot: smells like roasted honey, like sweet black currant jam (and I'm proud of myself for figuring out what that elusive smell was-- but it's currants, on the nose!). The leaves are large, black, tightly twisted, with bits of dark-reddish tippiness showing up. After steeping, I can see why they call this "five-color tea," because the leaves take on many hues of reddish- to greenish-brown, with large open leaves. As the leaves cooled in the pot, they took on a mineral and muscatel aroma, a very complex scent that was rather heady. I love the smell of good wet tea leaves!

2 heaping teaspoons per cup @ 2 cups boiling water, in Great-Grandma's Japanese porcelain pot. (It makes me happy to use this pot that had been sitting fallow all these years.)

This is a nearly transparent but quite dark brown tea, and highly fragrant and strong. The aroma, though, is very weak to the tea liquor itself. There is a hint of bitterness on the tongue and a complex, almost medicinally herbal flavor, with a very smooth and creamy mouthfeel. To me, the most enjoyable aspect of the tea is in the long aftertaste, which keeps shifting on my tongue. It goes from herbal, to cream, to chocolate, to dark honey, to something sharp and ascerbic....

For this tea, the second cup was much the same to me as the first, without a great deal of new flavor development. I'll be interested to find how multiple infusions play out. Drinking alone, I think I'll have to just taste the infusions and just allow some tea to go cool, because otherwise I'll be floating. Seems like a waste!

  • The second infusion: 4 minutes, boiling water. The cup is still a deep brown, with a hint of fogginess, perhaps, as I peer to the bottom of my cup. When drunk very hot, the tea has a distinctly metallic characteristic, as though it was steeped in spring water with a high mineral content, instead of simply filtered water. The flavor is somewhat subdued, and a bit earthy, though perhaps not as smooth as the first steeping-- a bit ascerbic, a dry mouthfeel. Although the directions say that I can do multiple steepings, the second is really not so amazing that I feel compelled to try a third. As the tea cools, the flavors declare themselves (again, primarily in the aftertaste)-- a bit like honey in the throat, some greenness up in the high register, some ascerbic dryness in the middle.

This tea has won the Best Dark Oolong award for 2008. This means that this tea has been judged one of the world's great teas. It pains me to say so, but I don't love it. The reason I don't like to say so is because doing so obviously displays the limitations of my palate or my execution, rather than any weaknesses inherent in the tea. Nevertheless, I was expecting a much more complex tea, and one that would really please my senses. Though the first steeping was quite a powerful experience, I didn't thrill with pleasure as I felt I ought to do.

NEW OFFERING: Cheeky Monkey, Glorious Limited Reserve Japanese Ninja-Picked Yagyu Matcha

Glorious Limited Reserve Japanese Ninja-Picked Yagyu Matcha

Operating on the sound principle that anything done by ninjas is inherently better, our staff carefully selected the infamous Yagyu family of certified Japanese stealth assassins to take command of the well-known Maruichi Green Tea Farm by slaughtering all its workers and their families. Making skillful use of their shuriken throwing knives or neko-te cat's claws, our ninjas, clad in black and cloud gray, carefully remove and gather only the tenderest buds and the top two leaves of new growth, all in the depths of darkest night or foggy twilight to avoid detection. Under the cover of smoke bombs, they gather the tea leaves as they fall toward the ground, employing their characteristic feline swiftness to do so, and then take the leaves to their hidden lair for processing. There, using appropriately named tetsubo clubs, they pulverize the leaves into the finest matcha.

Because ninjas are few and hard to find (and live to tell about it), our stock of this Glorious Limited Reserve Japanese Ninja-Picked Yagyu Matcha is very rare and valuable, and may be purchased only with gold bullion. Whistle in the way of the nightingale, at your window at midnight, for more details.

(For more offerings by Cheeky Monkey, visit our forum.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

2005 Thurbo Darjeeling,

2005 Thurbo Darjeeling

My friend Sonam Paljor Lama, whom I met via Facebook, sent me a package with a vintage 2005 Thurbo Estate Darjeeling. As he explained, it's pretty rare for anyone to hold back a Darjeeling, because it's typically all sold and consumed in the first year. And this is unfortunate, because a lack of available vintages also means that it's harder for people to keep track of great teas of years past. I am very grateful to Sonam for the wonderful gift of tea.

1 tsp leaves to 1 cup just under boiling water, in my favorite Japanese lined tetsubin.

The dry leaves are a brown-green, with tight leaves. The scent is extraordinary; like roses, eucalyptus, bright, fragrant-- precisely what I look for in a beautiful Darjeeling.

I love this cup, and it makes me sort of sad that, because it's a vintage tea, I won't be tasting this exact tea ever again. The liquor is a transparent golden-brown. The flavor is nicely smooth and very subtle, with a woodsy, floral flavor. There is a bright astringency, and it ever so slightly bitter. I can really see why Sonam kept it all these years: it's memorable and just delightful.

I love it when teas are treated as special and individual vintages, rather than as commodities. I realize the tea blender's art is to mix the unique teas in such a way that the buyer gets a consistent product-- so that Fortnum & Mason's black tea always tastes exactly the same, no matter how the growing conditions change from year to year. But to me, I'd rather experience the variety and uniqueness of tea estates, and enjoy how they change from year to year.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Did You Know... Steinthal Estate, Darjeeling

Searching more information about Steinthal Estates, I stumpled upon, and their history of the region's tea:

And I quote:

The first commercial tea gardens were Tukvar, Steinthal and Aloobari tea estates. This was in 1852 and all these plantations used seeds that were raised in the government nurseries. By 1856 the experimental stage had been passed and development was rapid. According to Darjeeling Gazetteer, Alubari Tea Garden was opened by the Kurseong and Darjeeling Tea Company and another on the Lebong spur by the Darjeeling Land Mortgage Bank. Several hundred ha of forest land was cleared, from 750 m elevation above the sea to 1800 m. By 1857 25 or 30 ha was planted , besides six nurseries, in which a ton of seed has been sown during 1857.
So the Steinthal tea estate is one of the first three that were established in Darjeeling, and some of their tea trees date back to that period.

REVIEW: TeaGschwendner, Darjeeling FTGFOP1 Steinthal First Flush

This photo is found at: and the caption reads, "Tea Planter with Tea Pickers, Steinthal Tea Estate 1930s"

Recently, I purchased a package of Darjeeling First-Flush Steinthal FTGFOP1 from TeaGschwendner. Now, readers of this blog (both of you) might know that I live very near one of the only TGs in the U.S., and that I passionately love their line of Darjeelings, which have been a source of great tea education and pleasure for me. Nevertheless, I have had some struggles with their Steinthal Estate first-flush Darjeeling.

I've tried this tea in the past, and I've never really been happy with the results. I assume the fault was with me and my preparation methods, so I am trying again. After the third pot of the tea this week, I think I've got it. Sort of.

The Tea Gschwendner Web site says this:
Founded in 1852, Steinthal is one of the oldest gardens in Darjeeling. Many of the original plants still thrive in a place where the tradition has been First Flush excellence. Fresh and herbaceous with subtle muscatel peeking through, the Steinthal packs a sizeable bite with the hallmark astringency that First Flush fans adore.
6 level teaspoons for 1 liter (about 4 cups) filtered, boiling water. Strictly 2 minutes steeping time, in the lined, cast-iron Japanese tetsubin. Accompanied by McVitie's Hob Nobs. I am hoping for better results if I am extremely careful to follow Tea Gschwendner's steeping directions.

Dry, they smell very much like... well, like dry leaves crackling underfoot in Autumn. The leaves are fairly small pieces, very tight, and color ranging from olive green to dark brown. Upon steeping, they take on a very lovely maybe camphor-like aroma, with a spark that reaches the upper nasal cavity in the same way that eucalyptus has-- though, obviously, not as nose-clearing.

This is a transparent cup with a deep golden-brown color. The tea itself has very little scent. The first cup of the tea is very astringent, a little bit harsh, and is quite strong. There are certainly floral notes, but it's not primarily a floral tea. This is all about that bite that the TG Web site mentioned.

I almost always like a pot of tea's second cup better than the first, because the chemistry in the pot has had the opportunity to mature the flavor. The Steinthal's second cup (of the first steeping) is smoother, but it still isn't what I would call a smooth tea. It's a bit harsh on the back of the throat, and it has a very pronounced flavor. Now, when I say it's a bit harsh, I mean, in comparison to other first-flush Darjeelings I am familiar with. The flavor is quite bright and attention-getting, with a very nicely lingering aftertaste of sweet garden herbs.

This tea seems to need some time to relax and become itself, and the third cup is much more pleasant than the first. It still has a slight burn at the back of my throat, but now there are berry flavors developing-- like blackberries, or grapes, or some such rich, sharp flavor.

This is a bit of a temperamental tea, in my opinion. I've tried it a number of times, and for whatever reason, it's difficult for me to coax out of it that certain special something that I look for when I drink Darjeelings. Its brightness is just a bit harsh; its aftertaste, just a bit dull; and its subtleties seem overshadowed by the"hallmark astringency" that all the kids go on about these days. While I do like my Darjeelings opinionated, this one seems somewhat overpowering for my taste. That being said, I still like the tea, and I am likely to buy it again.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

REVIEW: Teas Etc. Bai Mu Dan Loose Leaf Organic White Tea

Whenever I try out a new tea, I want to know as much as I can find out about it-- well, as much as I can find out in the time it takes to prepare and drink it. I found something at Wikipedia (which, as everyone knows, is sure to be complete). Please notice the description of how this tea is harvested and processed-- very exacting and specific:

The processing rules require this tea only be picked between March 15 and April 10. It is not picked on days that may be raining or if the dew has not dried or if there is frost on the ground. No purple buds are allowed and the stems must not be too long or too short. Partially open leaves or leaves damaged by wind, handling, or insects are rejected and put into a lower grade. The best Bai Mu Dan is produced using the two leaves and a bud proportion and is naturally or mechanically withered to produce leaves that are not black or red but green in color. And only pink or purple fairies are allowed to pick the tea leaves, but never on moonlit nights when Oberon is causing mischief. [Okay, I may have added that last bit. --Ed.]
White teas, as many people know, are as near to an unprocessed tea as one can get. The teas are steamed very early, keeping the teas from oxidizing into its darker cousins. Bai Mu Dan is often called White Peony, or even (and more enticingly) White Hairy Monkey tea.

Bai Mu Dan is described this way on the Teas Etc. Web site:

USDA Certified Organic Bai Mu Dan is truly a treat for the palate with subtle notes of sweet cream butter and light, pleasing vegetal notes.

Grown on the misty mountains of Fujian province in China, the downy silver buds and fresh young leaves are soft and intoxicatingly fragrant. The resulting liquor is a beautiful golden yellow with a more robust texture than your average white tea. The taste is deliciously rich, sweet cream butter with light, pleasing vegetal notes. Slightly astringent, it leaves behind just enough of the smooth sweetness to make you anxious for more. Over ice, this bold white tea plays coy, leaving behind the vegetal notes for an exquisitely refreshing taste experience.

The Teas Etc. Web site goes on to suggest steeping at 80C for 3-6 minutes. Okay, I'll settle on 4.5 minutes, to split the difference, and I will use Great-Grandma's Japanese porcelain pot. The leaves are pretty large, so 2 teaspoons per cup.

These leaves very in color from silvery-gray, to deep forest green, to crisp Spring green. It's mainly buds with tiny, white hairs on it, but I also see broken dark-green leaves and some stem in the leaves. They have a nice crunchy stiffness to them-- no sogginess or moisture. (What? You don't take a nibble of the raw leaves every now on then?) The uncooked leaves smell of hay and grass, with a little bit of floweriness. The spent leaves, when hot, do not have much aroma at all, except for a slightly mineral scent.


My wife shouted from the other room: "It's good. Light, smooth, not repulsive." (laughs) Really, I should ask her permission before putting her comments here, or risk her propensity to sarcasm when she knows I'm going to quote her.

The liquor, or soup, is a beautifully transparent cup that has a lovely amber-pink-peach color. I find the flavor to be a bit elusive for my taste. I understand that the Bai Mu Dan (or Pai Mu Tan) teas are loved by many because the taste is supposed to be more robust than some other varieties of White teas. However, for me, it's a stretch because the flavor is like a voice speaking quietly from the next room: very soft and muted, and a little hard to understand.

The cup, as my wife said, is quite smooth, with a slight dryness to the mouthfeel and a very faint burn at the back of my throat. I think it's a stretch to call this, "intoxicatingly fragrant," as it says on the Teas Etc. Web site, though it's pleasant enough.

This is a very restrained cup of tea that must be paid close attention to for me to notice it at all. I'm not sure if it's because this is the 2008 spring tea, and it has lost its "oomph" in the entire year since it was plucked, or because it requires different methods of preparation.

I have enough leaves to try this tea a number of times, and I will experiment with longer steeping times to draw out that "more robust flavor" that is supposed to be the characteristic that defines this bai mu dan, and separates it from other classes of white teas. I shall update when I do, to see if I can draw out more from this tea, which such exacting care and attention to painstaking details were employed to produce.

Thank you, Teas Etc., for an opportunity to taste your tea.

I tried the tea again tonight. Same parameters, except I steeped the tea just over 6 minutes this time. Now I begin to understand this tea. It's still smooth in the mouthfeel, which I didn't expect; but now it has a bite that catches my attention. (Ah! A smooth bite. Makes perfect sense.) The Bai Mu Dan remains delicate, but at the greater steeping length, the flavor is more defined.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare

With mirth and laughter, let old wrinkles come.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

REVIEW: Red Leaf Tea, Golden Nepal

Red Leaf Tea, Golden Nepal

Nepal is a country in the Himalayas, and its conditions are similar to that of the high Darjeeling lands. Elevations are 4000 to 5000 feet, generally, which cause its highgrown teas to have the intensity you'd see in the Darjeelings. In fact, there are tea farms in Nepal that create teas every bit as good as their Darjeeling counterparts. Nepali tea farms are usually small and family-owned, so there is quite a bit of variety to be found. And because the Nepal brand is not as well known as Darjeeling, it means the prices can be quite reasonable for somewhat similar teas. Let's see what we have here!



UPDATE: The nice folks at Red Leaf Tea have corrected their site after I pointed out that they had the wrong description. I deleted the incorrect information from this review, and now will use the new information to complete the review. Thank you, Red Leaf, for being so quickly responsive. Here is the description I find on the Red Leaf Web site:

Similar to Darjeeling tea, this high grown tea originates from the Antu Valley in Nepal. This tea features a pronounced flowery overtone and bright, yet mild flavor. This tea is best when served plain, so that you can enjoy the more subtle flavor qualities of this premium tea.

Sri Antu is in the Ilam District, which in turn is in the Eastern Region of Nepal. Ilam is directly opposite Darjeeling-- in fact, if you are on the tea garden in Ilam, you can see Darjeeling on the other side of the valley. Virtual Tourist describes it thus:

Ilam is the far eastern district of the country, inhabited by people of different colors living in peace and harmony. Neighboring the famous Indian hill town of Darjeeling, it is situated on the foothills of Mount Kanchanjunga, The third highest peak in the world. Ilam is adorned with an almost limitless range of lush-green tea gardens. The rolling hills covered with tea leaves are simply majestic. The thick white fogs alternatively descend to veil the gardens and then suddenly vanish. Greenery prevails all over the hills of Ilam all around the year. Ilam Tea Garden located near Ilam Bazaar and Kanyam Tea Garden located halfway between Terai plain and Ilam Bazaar are the major gardens of Nepal.

2 generous teaspoons with 2 cups just boiled water, cooled to perhaps 210F, in Great-Grandmother's ceramic Japanese teapot. Just over 3 minutes steeping time.

The leaves look pretty typical for what you'd see with a cut-tear-curl Darjeeling: small, black leaves, with maybe a hint of golden tippiness. When I smell the dry leaves, I get a very pleasant fruity scent. After steeping, the leaves had a rather dry smell, not as fragrant as I would have expected.

This tea seems has a transparent orange-brown cup, moderately fragrant with nice fruit scent. When I taste the Red Leaf Tea's Golden Nepal, the cherry-like fruitiness reminds me of the only other Nepali tea I have ever drunk, which came from the Jun Chiyabari estate, and is sold by Tea Gschwendner. Not to get into a contest between these two teas, but the flavor profile of this tea is rather similar, though quite a bit more restrained than the Tea Gschwendner offering. I didn't know what to expect from this tea, but it hadn't occurred to me that the regional characteristics of Nepali teas would have such distinct flavor markers that I could pick them out this easily.

The tea has a nice, full mouthfeel, with that pleasing sour cherry, woody flavor and an unusual bite at the back of the throat. I am noticing a floral scent that starts to make itself known as the cup cools slightly.

As I repeat every time I write (in case this is the first review someone has read), I believe my understanding of a tea is enhanced by drinking a second cup from the first steeping of a pot of tea (after the leaves have been removed), so the magic of chemistry allows the flavor compounds in the teas to react to one another in the heat of the pot, creating new flavors that were not present at the first.

Very nice. The Golden Nepal is quite smooth by the time I get to the second cup of this tea. Naturally sweet without a dry mouthfeel at all; a very well-modulated, light cup of tea that I like quite a bit. To quote an old Buddy Guy song: "...Where the water tastes like cherry wine." The tea is sweet, nicely spiked with something like a sour-cherry flavor. Nice finish, though not dramatic.

The second steeping is noticeably weaker than the first. Drunk hot, the tea has very little flavor or scent at all. Upon being allowed to move from Hot to Warm, the tea's flavors reassert themselves somewhat, though in more muted fashion than before. At this point, it feels a bit dryer and more ascerbic, a bit less smooth, and not so flavorful.
The second steeping is not terrible, but really not where the heart of this tea can be found.

A lovely tea for those who like Darjeelings and want to try something in the same vein, with a slightly different flavor profile. While not as ecstatic a drinking experience as the Jun Chiyabari was for me, nevertheless I enjoyed this quite a bit, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to taste it. Thank you, Red Leaf Tea, for sharing your tea with us.

REVIEW: Teas Etc., Golden Pearls

REVIEW: Teas Etc., Golden Pearls

In all, a challenging but interesting tea.

I love opening a new package of tea. The scent that greets me tells me something of what the next half hour of my life will be like, and what memories will be evoked by the scents and flavors. Spicy? Sweet? Simple? Complex? Honey and herbs? Grass and sea? Wood and autumn and dry leaves crushed underfoot?

Teas Etc "Golden Pearls" has an aroma that reminds me of thick, hot chocolate, with tones of hot cinnamon, perhaps, or a heavy red berry. The scent is very thick and heady, with such a heavy presence it has an actual mouthfeel.

This is called Golden Pearls, distributed by Teas Etc. I don't know much about the tea itself beyond its appearance, because the company's Web site doesn't tell me much about where it is from (beyond the fact that it was grown in Yunnan). Is it highgrown? Single-estate (judging from the evenness of the handmade, beautiful pearls, I would guess, yes)? Which time of the year was it harvested? I can only guess. I hate guessing.

Terroir is French for, "placeness," the way a region's environment causes a locally produced tea, or cheese, or wine to take on a unique characteristic that can't be imitated elsewhere. Yunnan, China, is the home of this tea. The Yunnan teas do have a certain flavor profile, but there is enormous variety within the region. I am interested to find what this will be. Yunnan is the ancient origination of the tea leaf, and indeed ancient tea trees here still produce specialized pu-erh and loose-leaf teas that are prized and can be very valuable.

2 heaping teaspoons of the leaves, 2 cups just-under-boiling water (lobster eyes, anyone?), in Great-Grandma's porcelain Japanese teapot. Steeped just over three minutes (which is on the scant side of the company's recommended 3 to 5 minutes).

These particular leaves are rolled into golden-and-black balls the size of largish pearls, with the scent I described at the opening of this review. After steeping, the spent leaves took on the appearance of thick needles about a half-inch to an inch long, with a color somewhere between black and milk chocolate. (And why the chocolate metaphors creeping into this review? Glad you asked.) The leaves were perfectly formed, with no damage I could see at all. What care was taken in their manufacture!

The scent was interesting. It smells a bit like bitter, dark chocolate, but with a note of hot spiciness that hits the back of the throat. This is very different from the floral complexity of the Darjeelings I've been indulging in lately.

The liquor is an opaque black. Drunk hot, it is quite heavy, really, even though it was only steeped for 3 minutes. There is quite a bitter edge, which I am not fond of. I know, bitterness is often an integral part of the tea-drinking experiences, as it is one of the five flavors (bitter, sour, salt, sweet, and umami), and using milk and sugar to blunt it seems really a way of cheating nature.

Very strong chocolate overtones, and a sharp spiciness at the back of the mouth. A very serious cup of tea that reminds one of drinking a cup of strong, black coffee. The Yunnan characteristic makes me think a bit of the pu-erhs I drank recently-- that's the terroir coming out-- a bit metallic, even a bit like the smell of the old oil in an automobile repair shop. Actually, the flavor is both very bold and rather elusive-- one sip reminds me of one flavor, but the next sip it's changed, and that first impression is lost forever.

THE SECOND CUP (of the first steeping)
Still quite bitter, which is the predominant characteristic that I notice upon first sipping. The chocolate note is transforming into more like a coffee flavor-- like those coffee-flavored candies my Grandma had in her house, but I couldn't really enjoy. As the tea cools, the bitterness gives way to the very thick coffee-ness. I'm trying not to cheat, but I would ordinarily be tempted drink this with a touch of sugar to cut that bitterness. (In fact, my wife did cheat, and I tasted her cup. Much better. She even went so far as to blunt it with milk and sugar, English style, and that went a long way to mute that harshness.)

I have steeped this a second time for a fairly short time-- 30 seconds or so. With second steepings, I've heard advice saying to only steep for maybe 15 or 30 seconds; and others who say to double the steeping time. This will take further study, but at the moment...
ME: How do you like it (a sip of my unsweetened second steeping)?
WIFE: It's good. It's not my favorite.
ME: How did you like your first cup, though?
WIFE: It's good, with the milk and sugar.
And... there you have it. The second steeping is much smoother than the first. The bitterness is almost entirely absent, leaving behind a cleaner, brighter, less heavy brew. There's a greenness in the flavor now, and a grassiness that was completely absent before. Also, that heavy chocolate/coffee flavor is absent when drunk hot. Honestly, I like the second steeping much better than the first, because I am not fond of heavy or bitter teas that require milk and sugar to be drunk.

When allowed to cool a bit in the cup, the second steeping of this tea allows the chocolate flavor to return to the palate, but this time without the bitterness I experienced at first. This is a pleasant surprise I was not expecting. As always, the Chinese thought of everything first-- and their practice of thinking of teas as Hot, then Warm, then Cool is useful when assessing the different stages a tea goes through in its evolution in the cup.

In future, I would consider rinsing the tea for 30 seconds or so to help remove some of that heaviness and bitterness, which made the tea a bit challenging at first... or maybe I should just break down and drink it with milk and sugar, English-style. Obvious care was taken in the creation of this tea-- the leaves were perfectly formed and undamaged in transit halfway across the world-- so I hesitate to go to such extremes. I'm glad the chocolate tone finally made its appearance on the second steeping, and without the bitterness. In all, a challenging but interesting tea.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Thank you, Geoff at

REVIEW: 2009 First-Flush Oolong from Soureni Estate, Darjeeling,

2009 has been a very special year for me, because after all these years of learning about tea, I finally feel as though I'm coming home. This is because of the happy combination of proximity to and attending an influential tasting by a first-class tea vendor, Tea Gschwendner; plus the friends I have made through the Facebook group "A Cup of Tea Solves Everything"; and discovering a host of tea bloggers and writers I did not know even existed a couple years ago. And now being part of, I am also given the opportunity to savor teas I would not otherwise have been in a position to enjoy.

One new friend in particular, Sonam Paljor Lama, who operates, has sent samples to me from my beloved Darjeeling, which has been a delight and an education. I've never tasted such fresh tea from a first-flush. Being in the States, teas typically take a little longer to get to us.

Sonam sent me a brand-new 2009 first-flush Oolong from the tiny Soureni tea estate, which is wedged between the large Singbulli and Phuguri estates. I have high hopes, because the Phuguri Darjeelings have long been my favorite. (Though, this year, the Arya first-flush Darjeeling was so spectacular... but back to this tea!) This year the growing season was cut short because of a late start, which means the first-flush Darjeelings are more rare. Sonam writes that most of the highgrown, exotic Darjeelings are still yet to come. Yay, this should be an exciting season.

What an interesting scent awaited me as I opened the package and stuck my nose into it. It wasn't really the scent that I'd later find in the cup-- rather earthy, almost; woody. After steeping, the cup's scent differed dramatically from the spent leaves, which had a sharp spicy smell. The leaves themselves were very beautiful-- small leaves and buds, perfectly shaped, usually in the classic two-leaves-and-a-bud configuration. They were predominantly an olive-green color with a reddish hue overlaying it.

5.5 minutes with water just below boiling, in Great-Grandma's Japanese porcelain teapot. I approximated Sonam's steeping time, which I found on his blog.

Beautiful peach-amber color in the transparent cup. The scent! I love the smell of a fragrant tea. This smells of cherries and honey, maybe a smell of roasted sugar, and a bit of something floral high up in the aroma. Again, why has no enterprising perfume artist created a first-flush Darjeeling-scented aroma? It would be intoxicating.

This tea is an oolong, but to me it just says, Darjeeling! The terroir seems to define the tea to me, more than does the method of its preparation. Its Darjeelingness-- that lightly fragrant and complex scent; its astringency and brightness in flavor; its long finish-- that's what I come for.

The cup seems to move through several stages as it cools slightly in the cup: Hot, it's all about the scent, which I described above. Complex, fascinating, sweet, slightly floral, amazing. As it goes to Warm, there is rather a bit of bitterness that develops. Perhaps its the long steeping time that Sonam said he used (and I would typically only steep a first-flush Darjeeling for maybe 2 to 3 minutes, rather than a full 5 to 6), but I would rather have skipped that part. On my next time around, I think I'll steep 2 minutes and perhaps employ a larger number of steepings. But then in the slightly Cool stage, the bitterness almost completely vanished, leaving this almost winelike honey flavor that is indescribable, with a dryness in the mouth and a long finish that makes me think more of savory-sweet herbs like tarragon.

Hot, the second steeping is very smooth, with the sharp elbows tucked in. The scent of the cup is sweet, more restrained and relaxed. There is still the astringency in the back of the throat, with no bitterness to speak of. Same brightly golden-brown color. The flavor is more haunting and ethereal, with layered notes of cherry and honey that rise up and meet you in an almost shy way, rather than assertively sticking their hand out and pulling you in. As the tea cools, it develops the characteristic dryness in the mouthfeel.

By the third steeping, I am not noticing the tea's increasingly elusive flavor while sipping, so much as the memory of her voice echoing sweetly after she has already left the room. In the aftertaste, the flavor characteristic to this tea makes itself felt.

When reading this to Suzanne, I tell her the tea reminds me of her. She said, "Sweet and layered? Like an onion? [laugh]" I responded, "No, like a parfait!" MY WIFE tells me it is delicious, and though she feels she doesn't have a palate that can pick out subtle nuances, she loves how fresh and clean the tea feels in her mouth.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Video: Darjeeling's Tea Rajah

I found this video on the Darjeeling Tea Blog, about Darjeeling's Tea Rajah, Mr. Rajah Banerjee. Benoy writes the following:

I found this nice little video hidden on Youtube. Some of fellow tea enthusiasts may have already viewed it, but if you haven’t then, its simply great. It showcases Makaibari Tea Estate and the only existing “Darjeeling Tea Rajah”, Mr. Rajah Banerjee, who has kept the tradition alive as it was in the British era. He still rides his horse when inspecting tea work in the fields and not to forget the old British outfit which fascinates a first timer. I am sort of used to seeing him so called ‘old fashioned’ hehe!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

REVIEW: Narien Teas Zhejiang Mao Feng

Narien Teas Zhejiang Mao Feng

It's a very delicate tea with a long finish that lingers in the mouth long after the last drop has been drunk.

Today I'm drinking a green tea from the Zhejian region of China, Narien Tea's Zhejiang Mao Feng.

The words, mao feng, translate to mean, "two leaves and a bud." This means this tea is the tender new growth of the tea plant.

In Zhejiang, the mountain mists help protect the tea leaves from direct sunlight (at least, part of the time), which makes the teas even more tender. I understand that some Japanese tea growers, who don't have such high and misty mountains, will try to artificially produce the same result by covering the tea plants under canopies, allowing them to only receive indirect light.

Brought water just to boiling then cooled to 70C. 2 teaspoons of tea per cup of water.

The dry leaves smell very green and fresh, with a citrusy overtone. The leaves range from a spring green, to gray, to forest green, with tightly wound leaves. I am willing to bet the leaves will be very fragrant after steeping.... And they are! The leaves unfurled to be a more evenly olive color. Wonderfully fragrant! They should package this scent as a perfume.

The tea is a pale golden color, like straw. Drunk hot, the tea tastes exactly as it smells. It's slightly dry in the mouth, with a very slightly sweet taste and almost bitter citrus overtone. My wife does not think it tastes at all citrusy, but rather green.

Drunk at a rather cooler temperature, the second cup of tea loses a lot of its flavor, though maintaining a bit of a straw and grassy flavor, with somewhat floral overtones developing in the more bitter finish. It's better to carefully maintain the tea's temperature.

This tea's flavor is carried largely in its vibrant aroma, and is full of contrasts: bitter and sweet, dry and floral, green and citrus. It's a very delicate tea with a long finish that lingers in the mouth long after the last drop has been drunk.

PLEASE NOTE: At this steeping, the Narien Teas corporate Web site is unavailable, so I could not depend on them for instructions on preparation or background on the tea.

UPDATE: The Narien Teas Web site is now back up, and the link to buy this tea can be found here:

Friday, April 17, 2009

REVIEW: Tea Gschwendner, South India White Oothu

Tea Gschwendner, South India White Oothu.

Exotic, intriguing, evocative, and a good bargain.

White teas are becoming so trendy that the other day I saw a white tea meat rub at my local grocery store. And when your product has become a meat rub, you know a tipping point for market penetration has been reached.
"Hey, Bernice, this pork rub has white tea in it!"
"But I don't eat pork."
"Buy it anyway! You think it's any good on bacon?"
Yep. Anyway, white tea is popular because it has all the unprocessed antioxidants and has been marketed as a health product. But I'm here to contemplate the tea experience-- flavor, aroma, and what these leaves can do.

Tea Gschwender, as we all know, has built up a lot of trust among their clients, because they deliver a very consistent product, with intelligent tasters. I love them because they have all these wonderful single-estate teas that have such individual and interesting flavor profiles. This is one of them, and its aroma and taste set my scent-memory pinging.


The South India White Oothu is described thus on the Tea Gschwendner Web site:
Forty miles from the southern tip of the subcontinent and isolated within a pristine tropical rainforest, Oothu was the first tea garden in India to adopt Biodynamic tea cultivation. This White Tea offering is partially oxidized, showing splendid colors of green, russet and pale brown. In the cup, a delightful and pungent earthiness awaits with nutty undertones. A smooth affair, with an intensity rarely seen in a White Tea.

The Oothu organic tea estate is quite new-- only about 10 years old. It was developed in the rainforests of Kerala state, in India, by Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation on a site chosen specifically for the cultivation of pollution-free organic tea. It's out in the middle of prehistoric forests, far away from any industry or population, and isolated from the rest of the country by the Western Ghats, a mountain range that is noted for being one of the world's hottest biodiversity hotspots, with 5000 different kinds of unique plants and hundreds of species animals not seen elsewhere. The Oothu estate won't use any chemical pesticides or fertilizers, relying on vermiculture and natural fertilizing instead. Additionally, the Ghats contain an enormous watershed, which pours into the entire subcontinent. Indeed, Oothu means, "spring of water," as a testimony to the fresh water that feeds the the tea harvest. Oothu Estate is owned by the Singampatti group of estates, which specialize in organic, Fair Trade teas.


The filtered water needs to come to a boil, then be brought way down to 70C. This cooling off does take rather a while. Once at proper temperature, I used 2 cups of water with 4 heaping teaspoons of tea, because this was not at all dense. Waiting allowed me to write a bit about the tea.


I can attest to the multichromatic tea leaves: pale, spring green leaves mix with autumn brown and olive green, and the appearance is very lovely. I did not see any whole leaves. There is quite a lot of small, broken leaf mixed with the more intact pieces. There are no buds that I can see, but some stems.

As the description states, this is a lightly oxidized tea-- which surprises me, because I had always thought that the main characteristic of a "white" tea is its lack of oxidization. If it's been oxidized, what makes it a "white" tea at all?


The appearance of the liquor is a rich amber, not at all green, and nicely transparent. This tea works very strongly on the part of my brain that evokes place memory. It makes me think of the scent of historic wood houses, and log cabins, and crushed leaves underfoot in Autumn.

It is very unlike other white teas I've had before. Oothu white tea seems almost like a restrained cousin to a pu-erh: dry, scented very much like cedar, and hints of the thick smell of moist, black dirt. It's slightly sweet and needs no accompaniment.

There is an aftertaste that lingers on for quite a while: with that cedar scent.


I have no idea what the second cup tastes like, because my wife drank it! She said, "It tastes very Asian, like nori and green tea." Well, there you have it!


This tea very easily can provide a second steeping. I steeped again at 70C, but this time for only maybe 15-30 seconds. The flavors were very complete, and the second steeping helped me identify just what that smell was evoking in my memory: walking in Abraham Lincoln's log cabin in Springfield, Illinois. Strange, how a bunch of steeped leaves that came from the prehistoric rainforests of southern India can make me remember so many things, no?

A very nice tea. Thank you, Tea Gschwendner, for bringing it halfway across the world to us.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

REVIEW: Tea Gschwendner, Assam Ananda Second-Flush TGFOP1, 2008

When I review a new tea, I try to be very thorough-- smelling the leaves, watching carefully the appearance of the leaves, detailing all the steps I took, annotating the complex aromas and flavors, and the emotions and memories they evoke.

For Tea Gschwendner's Assam Ananda Second Flush TGFOP1, I will be uncharacteristically brief.

This seems a proper Assam, though not amazing. When piping hot, it's bitter and sharp-edged enough that I would understand adding milk and sugar to blunt its harshness. This is not a characteristic I look for in a tea. It does, however, mellow as it cools in the cup, becoming more drinkable without amelioratives.

I was trying to think of a reason I would buy this tea, but I am not excited about it enough to do so.


In retrospect, I find that I like heavier, maltier teas less and less. This means I'm most likely not going to find that I like an Assam, unless it's uncharacteristically light and clear. I don't want to give the impression that I dislike TeaGschwendner, because they have a spectacular array of teas that I do love.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

REVIEW:, Arya Estate Darjeeling, Premium First Flush 2009

Darjeeling from the Arya Estate, Premium First Flush 2009.

I love this cup of tea. I love it. And it is sent to me by Sonam Paljor Lama, who lives in Darjeeling and operates (opening soon) and his blog, Sonam was kind enough to send me a sample, which I am really enjoying right now. Thank you, Sonam!

The tea comes from the Arya Estate, and is the brand-new 2009 spring tea. As a first flush, I expect the tea to be light and bright, with an airy flavor. Let's see how that expectation bears out.

Filtered, boiling water into my cast-iron Tetsubin, over 4 teaspoons of tea, for 3 minutes. This tea can go for maybe up to 5 minutes, but I'll go with a shorter infusion for my first time.

The dry leaves are tightly furled, ranging from forest green to a brighter spring green. When opening the package, such an unusual smell-- a smell of vegetal decomposition, almost pine. I love smelling things that seem unidentifiable but beautiful.

What a wonderful, strong scent comes from the wet leaves: like ash, like honey, tobacco-sweet. The leaves opened up into beautiful green-brown leaf fragments.

Beautiful amber-brown cup, transparent and clean. The flavor is bright and intense-- nothing relaxed about this tea. It seems like it's shouting, or dancing. It has a very pleasant astringent dryness that moves across the tongue, and the flavor is so caught up in the fragrance. Sonam suggested the tea is like roasted honey, and I am inclined to agree with him. But to say that seems to make it seem cloying, when it is bracing instead. What an exciting cup of tea! This is why I drink Darjeelings.

As I pour the second cup, I must come back to the leaves. As they've sat a few minutes, they have become more floral, with a grape arbor scent. Imagine sitting under a grape-leaf canopy in northern Italy, smelling the fragrance and taking in the scenery-- that's what this makes me think of.

The color of the cup is still the same richly brown-amber appearance, clear to the bottom of the cup.

Now that the cup has had a few minutes to cool, and as it allows the complex chemistry in the pot to deepen and add layers to the flavor, I definitely notice a honey scent that strongly makes me think of a beehive. Rather pungent and delicious. There is a roasted flavor as well. (And that sounds exactly like Sonam's description! Remind me not to read other people's reviews before I make my own.)

The flavor seems to lock in immediately, and then stay intense all the way through until the aftertaste, where it remains a sort of bright tingle at the back of the mouth and throat. Even after the second cup, I am not losing the intensity. But rather, there is a mellow smoothness developing in the cup as it cools slightly.

This is an extraordinary and intriguing cup of tea, the best I've had in quite a while. This seems like just that perfect Darjeeling-- bright, sharp, sweet, layered, and unique.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

REVIEW: Red Leaf Tea, Prosperity Cube Pu-erh

Review: Red Leaf Tea
Prosperity Cube Pu-erh

On Easter Sunday, after the family dinner, I convinced some of my guests to participate in a pu-erh flight-- by which I meant, a tea tasting in many parts, drinking that very strange animal, the pu-erh. I can't really call it a proper gong-fu session, because I don't have all the right equipment or training. I'd have to call it gong-faux, so to speak. But still, a lot of fun! Let's get started.


This is an enormous topic, but I will try to give a short outline here. Please use a search engine and type in, "pu-erh," and you will find a fairly overwhelming superabundance of information.

The teas that most of us are familiar with fall within three main categories: green, oolong, and black. These teas differ from one another by how much oxidation is allowed to take place in the leaves, transforming from the unoxidized white teas, all the way to the blackest Assams. The oxygen in the air reacts with the tea leaves, causing this transformation to occur.

However, the Chinese have a fourth category: pu-erh.

Pu-erh (or puerh, or pu'er, or other variations as the language is transliterated) is not defined by the amount of oxidation that occurs, but rather the fact that it undergoes fermentation, in much the same way that wines, cheeses, and beers do. In this process, a green tea from a specialized pu-erh tea tree (that is, Camellia sinensis sinensis plants that have been been bred on Chinese tea estates to have large leaves and a particularly favored flavor) is then pressed into a compressed brick, or disk, or tiny cube, or other various shapes. The compressed pu-erh tea leaves are then allowed to mature for a number of years, allowing microbes to transform the leaves into one of the most complex, perplexing, and fascinating culinary adventures one can experience.

Over time-- and the time can be short or very long-- the pu-erh beengs (disks) and tuo-cha (single-serving nuggets) are transformed, allowing one to brew amazingly layered, complex drinks. And as with wine, prized pu-erh vintages can go for astounding prices. The very best pu-erhs almost never leave the Chinese mainland, and are stored as investments by Chinese billionaires in special, humidor-like environments. During the '90s, there was a pu-erh bubble, which has since popped. During that period, the vintage pu-erhs' prices rose dramatically, making them beyond most people's ability to purchase. And, unfortunately, fake pu-erhs abounded, with young, poor, or substandard beengs being passed off as old, carefully stored pu-erhs. In consequence, much confusion abounds in the world of pu-erh. In fact, many collectors will only buy new disks of pu-erh, because (1) they are the only affordable kind; and (2) the old ones are so often faked, it's difficult to know what you're getting.

Young, green pu-erhs can be very bitter and challenging to drink. They have strong earthy tastes, and can be very harsh. However, over the years, if they are made of good materials and they're treated correctly, they can transform into truly extraordinary drinks that have driven true aficionados to pen such poetry as this:
Oh, 70s maocha. How do I love thee? Your long, chocolate-coloured leaves are coiled around unbroken, ossified stems. Absolutely no aroma of any kind is to be detected - but these are leaves that have drifted into deep slumber, and which awake with a powerful shicang [wet storehouse] aroma once rinsed.

(I really enjoy shicang pu'er.)

Pu-erh is served in traditional Chinese gong-fu style. The Chinese tea ceremony is not nearly as focused on social custom and the outer accouterments of the tea experience, as it is on the actual tea itself. And so it is very efficient. All that is needed is hot water, a gaiwan (lidded up), a pitcher, and some cups. And a whole lot of gong-fu (which is the same word as kung-fu). A good description is here:

I am very intrigued by pu-erh, but I have had very little experience with it, and I don't have all the proper equipment. When TeaViews let me have a tuo-cha (small, single-serving sized nugget) of pu-erh, I jumped at the chance, even with my inexperience. I went online and spent hours reading the proper way to steep pu-erh, and what to look for in the experience. So I decided to use the equipment I had and just try to figure it out as I went along. I'm sure a proper pu-erh master would recoil in shock and horror, but I don't know how else to learn except to try. Therefore, I'll go with my gong-faux preparation and do the best I can.

I am working with Red Leaf Tea's "Prosperity Cube Pu-erh Tea (2003)."

In appearance, it is a small, black cube perhaps an inch across, in a paper wrapper. The cube has the Chinese character for "Prosperity," which is embossed in the tea itself. According to the Web site, prosperity cubes are enjoyable gifts that invite the drinker to experience, well, prosperity. While I don't know if drinking a cup of tea will give me the desired prosperous life, I am certainly looking forward to an enjoyable experience.

The vintage is from 2003, which means it's had only a couple years to develop its flavor. The very best leaves are not really used for small cubes and tuo-cha, and it is pretty unlikely that, for under $4.00, I will be getting some tea that a connoisseur would be drooling over. That being said, I can still have a great time playing and learning.

UPDATE: On her Twitter feed, Gongfu Girl gives us the following:
GongfuGirl The "tuo" in "tuo cha" (沱茶) means "bowl or nest shaped" in Mandarin, so what would you call a tiny, square Pu-erh Cha (普洱茶)? Zhuan Cha (砖茶)?


One porcelain Japanese teapot, one cube pu-erh. I brought water up to the boil on the stove, and started, one fluid cup at a time. I timed each steeping pretty carefully, and designed the following flight schedule: 20s rinse, 10s, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 1m, 2m, 3m, 4m, 5m. I took the following notes on the fly, as we were tasting the teas. My brother and his wife had to leave after the fifth steeping, and I completed the flight on my own. I am aware that the first four steepings are not pu-erh at its best, and that the fifth steeping is where the true flavors truly announce themselves. We'll see!

I rinsed the cube for 20s and used that water to clean out and warm up the tea bowls and sniffing cups for me, my brother, and his wife.

  • exotic and spicy at the back of the throat
  • smell is also very strongly spicy (forgive overuse of this word, but it will come up quite a lot in this review), after the initial wash woke up the leaves
  • hint of cherries? very complex flavor: earthy, exotic, very strong
  • my brother does not like the smell at all-- a bit too earthy for him at this point, so to speak

  • dark, black in color
  • much fuller body and mouthfeel
  • dry feeling in the mouth
  • bitter edge to the flavor

  • makes me slightly dizzy (as with every pu-erh experience I have)
  • taste of acid, ash, tobacco, sweet under the bitter
  • cherry fruitiness hiding in there somewhere
  • as with before, the scent seems exactly as strong and spicy as before. The scent of the wet leaves is wonderful, intoxicating, fascinating. Very enjoyable for all of us, including my brother!

  • extremely powerful smell in leaves, very sharp and bright
  • drink less strongly scented, like earth-- not too spicy
  • peppery, fruity undercurrent.
  • dry, but still rather smooth, not burning back of throat

  • still a very dark liquor
  • the scent of the leaves remains so strong
  • did I mention it smells spicy?
  • the flavor is surprisingly constant after all these steepings, but less earthy
  • the tea is drastically losing its strength, and starts to seem watery
1 min
  • slight metallic flavor developing
  • guests went home, so now it's must me and the pu-erh
2 min
  • lighter flavor
  • still consistent taste, though-- not very drastic change or development
  • color is approaching a peach-pink, not as dark
  • tastes great when coupled with silky chocolate

3 min
  • the flavor seems very consistent
  • rather sweet, honey
  • not nearly as astringent as in the second-fourth steepings
  • (Is it really correct to throw out the early steepings? I've enjoyed tasting them.)
  • The leaves are still amazingly fragrant
  • The tea seems now like a nicely light Indian tea, perhaps, with a bit of spice at the back of the throat. It's the scent of the leaves, more than the taste, that says to me, "This is not an Indian tea."

4 min
  • when drinking it quite hot: rather metallic, flavor falling flat
  • very slight burn in back of the throat
  • It doesn't seem at this point very worthwhile to keep steeping it, because the best flavor and scent seems behind me
  • still a long aftertaste, like hot metal, and like weeds
  • a taste reminiscent of hot, dry roses

5 min
  • (I made a fifth steeping, but neglected to take notes here. But as I remember it, the steeping was starting to get quite watery, and losing its interest for me.)

Well, that's how I approached the pu-erh flight. Drinking pu-erh is not something where you just toss off a cup and drink it on the fly. Lots of focus and lots of good conversation with wonderful people made it fun.

I realize I do not have the breadth of experience to say whether this is a high-quality pu-erh, but I can definitely say it is worth spending time on this type of tea. It's really not like any other type of tea, and it is wonderful for people who, like me, love exotic scents and complex, layered flavors. I do like how this Prosperity Cube allowed me to share an intriguing tea experience with several people for several hours, all for less than $4.00. And it definitely makes me want to experience it a lot more.

REVIEW: Tea Spot, Blue Mountain Nilgiri


The Tea Spot

The Nilgiri mountain range in southern India goes between the two states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu (remind me to put this on my travel destinations list). The Blue Mountains (for that is what nil-giri means, I am told) are covered with small, family farms, which sell to larger tea buyers for distribution. Some history: Nilgiri region teas used to be sold to the former U.S.S.R., which did not have very high standards for tea they imported, which meant that the standards in the region were not required to be very high. In fact, they were occasionally noted for unsatisfactory hygienic practices in their farms, as well as occasionally trying to pass off teas that were mixed with cheaper stuff from elsewhere. When the U.S.S.R. fell, the fortunes of the region fell with it. The Tea Board of India has been working with local farmers to correct the poor practices, and increase the ability of the region to brand itself.

Nilgiris have always seemed, to my taste, like Darjeelings relaxing with their feet up on an ottoman. Similar in brewing style, but a bit less intense and bracing. Once I discovered tea from this region, it quickly became one of my favorite day-to-day teas, because it was easily affordable while able to provide a very satisfying experience. A high-quality Nilgiri can easily rival its Darjeeling counterparts. And, typically, these are less expensive, because "Darjeeling" has name recognition that leads it to be sought around the world, while "Nilgiri" does not.

Tea Spot's Web site says their Black Label teas are single-estate, which is great, because we hope it means that the distinctiveness of a single terroir will make itself known. I do wish The Tea Spot would tell us what tea estate this comes from, and which flush. For more serious tea drinkers, that kind of information is golden.

The Tea Spot web site gives us the following information:

BLACK LABEL ORGANICS is our brand new line of 100% organic & fair-trade, single-estate, loose leaf teas.... well as the following:

100% Organic & Fair Trade

Tasting Notes:

These rich burgundy leaves from India's Nilgiri Mountains steep into a bright amber liquor, with a well-rounded body that floats on your palate with hints of ripe summer blackberries.


  • 100% Organic & Fair Trade Black Tea
  • Single-estate premium loose leaf tea
  • Origin: India, Nilgiri Mountains

The leaves may have been "a rich burgundy" for all I know, but they seemed dark black. The small, broken pieces make me believe this is BOP processed in CTC style (cut-tear-curl, processed by machine), and the scent seems consistent with a second-flush, though I'm only guessing. Very typical black-tea scent.

Dark-brown liquor, tending to black, and transparent to the bottom of the cup. The scent is very faint. The cup itself is as I described earlier-- like a decent Darjeeling, with its feet up reading the paper. Relaxed, relaxing, pleasant though not amazing. My wife liked it very much, describing it as "Excellent: crisp, bright, and clean."

In character, this tea seems somewhere between a Darjeeling and an Assam: It is ascerbic in quality like a Darjeeling, though less so; and it has a touch of the maltiness of the Assam. It does have muted fruit notes (the liner notes said blackberries, and I'm willing to accept that description). The tea will not suffer from the addition of a touch of sugar and milk, if you want that, though it is not necessary.

I won't belabor this whole "second cup" stuff for the umpteenth time, but I'll just say that I always use the second cup in a steeping to tell me how the tea really tastes.

The second cup is where the business is. I'm drinking this cup about 5 minutes after the first cup had been poured. It now seems to be pulling in two different directions: sharper, like the Darjeelings; and more malty, like an Assam would be. There are definitely berry flavors appearing, and it has an enjoyably long finish.

[As a side note, by the time I got to the third cup, the taste had dulled noticeably, and it was absent those brighter flavors. I know the Chinese think of tea in three moments: hot, warm, and cool. As always, they are 10 steps ahead of everyone else, and they have long noted noted the disparity in the tea experience, depending on whether that cup has been left to cool somewhat or not, and by how much.]

Poo Poo Platter

(Image found on the MarshalN blog.)

Marshal N writes very knowledgeably about tea, particularly the wide variety of pu-erh teas he has collected. His style is very approachable, and it's quite fun to read his many, many reviews of the teas he loves (and hates!).

One in particular surprised me a little bit: Tea made from-- wait for it-- bug droppings. Yes, the droppings insects leave behind in a tea manufacturing plant, and are usually swept up and tossed out.

Oh, go read it. You know you want to. And then stick around and read the rest of his site.

(Eat your heart out, coffee drinkers.)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

REVIEW: Green Hill Tea, Sencha

Green Hill Tea

Green Hill Tea (Thank you, George) sent me a packet of Sencha to review. Their Web site provides the following information:

This is a traditional Japanese-style green tea with tightly rolled, needle-shaped leaves. It’s steamed and contains high antioxidants. It was picked in early spring. The liquor is bright in color, with a clean finish. This is the everyday green tea in Japan.

Brew hint: Place one tea spoon into a cup; brew with 175-195ºF water for 3-7 minute.

4 teaspoons of tea, in 4 cups water that was taken to the boil and then pulled back to 80C, and steeped about 3:15 in Japanese tetsubin, a cast-iron pot with enamel interior. Yes, I know it's not a proper Japanese tea set, but I try to make do.

These leaves are very strongly fragrant. They're a forest green, and very tightly furled into needle shapes (just as advertised on the Web site). There is a grassy lemon smell. It's amazing how distinct the different teas can smell. Human ingenuity is so impressive to me. One reason I love tea, in particular, is that it is the culmination of thousands of years of human endeavor and creativity, and a drive to excellence and beauty. And these leavs are a prime example of that. How do they come to smell so sharp and lemony, with that green grass scent? I am so glad for my sense of smell! How lucky of the Japanese to be able to have this as their everyday drink.

The leaves completely unfurled, revealing broken pieces, most maybe an eighth to half an inch, of a very even olive green complexion, with some stem that I didn't notice when the dry leaves were in these tight needle shapes. They have a faint (not overpowering) seaside smell, like seaweed, and salt water, and faint hints of that wonderfully complex smell of decomposition you get when walking on a beach. And with all of this, a touch of lemon or citrus. (Did I mention, I think smelling the leaves is a wonderful way to start to get to know a tea, even before tasting it.)

Green and transparent, but just a touch of cloudiness to it. The scent of the tea is very unlike that of the leaves, dry or spent. It's a very laid-back scent. It appears all the power of this cup is in the actual tastebuds, not in the nose.

The flavor is what I associate with Japanese food-- seaside, seaweed, grass... in short, a pretty good match for the scent of the leaves. There are bright, grassy notes, along with sort of a richness-- it must be that sense of "umami," the elusive fifth flavor, which is explicated here... This is a very fun read, though just slightly off topic.

This tea would go beautifully with some extremely rich dark chocolate, perhaps. I wish I had some to try out my theory!

The aftertaste seems to be sensed from the back of the throat, with a rich loamy sensation. Very nice. I almost think rich, dark aftertaste is nicer than the up-front brightness in the cup.

Ah, the all-important second cup, where the rubber hits the road, in my mind. I like to make at least two cups in one steeping, to let the second cup cool just a bit and allow the more complex flavors an opportunity to develop, by way of all the complex chemistry in a pot of tea.

The color of the second cup has taken on a more brown-gold appearance, and it is cloudier than its first cup.

It now has a much sharper edge to it. The flavors are more pronounced, the brightness enhanced. Had I only made one cup, my impression of this tea would be completely different. The mouthfeel is very full-bodied, for a green tea. The sharpness is primarily felt in the back of the mouth, like eating a very sharp grapefruit or something. There's a lemony fragrance that is quite pronounced. But the deeper notes, the umami, are very noticeable in the mouth, and that makes it, for me, a very satisfying drink.

Thanks, George, again, for an enjoyable tea! It's a serious tea, and I am very grateful the opportunity to learn more about sencha with this sample.

Side note: My wife doesn't really love this tea, because she is very used to black teas. She needed a little bit of sugar to cut the edge off of it. She finds it to be a bit woody, not grassy. She had the second cup, though, and I wonder if she would have liked the lighter first cup better.

Thursday, April 9, 2009 newest reviewer

I just joined the staff, as a tea reviewer. My first review was of the Lapsang Souchong I received from Green Hill Tea. The link is here:


It's great fun to be linked in with people who love tea.


Wednesday, April 8, 2009

REVIEW: Green Hill Tea, Jasmine Pearls

My Facebook friend George sent me a few teas to sample, and his company's Jasmine Pearl Scented Green Tea is what I'll review today.

Green Hill Tea
Jasmine Pearl

Upon opening the foil package, we were confronted by a very strong floral, almost perfume smell. I don't typically drink flavored or scented teas (particularly the chocolate-raspberry-souffle type flavors one often sees today), but I also know that scenting green teas with jasmine is a tradition with a long pedigree, so let's give it a try.

I do not know the background of the tea itself-- what tea farm it comes from, which time of the year it was harvested, that kind of thing. The Web site gives me the following:


It is made by rolling the tender shoots of the green tea leaves and buds into pearl shape and is scented with fresh jasmine petals. When steeped, these leaves unfold as if the flowers open up. The strong fragrant aroma from Jasmine Pearl tea is fresh and persistent. The taste is delicious and mellow. The hue of this tea is a light peach color. It goes well with savory foods, or it may be enjoyed alone as a soothing digestive.

Brew hint: Place one tea spoon into a cup; brew with 175-195 F water for 3-7 minute.

4 cups water, 4 heaping teaspoons of tea pearls. Brought water to boil, let cool to 84C. Steeped in great-grandma's heated Japanese teapot. 2 minutes steeping time.

Before brewing, they were jade-green balls about 1/8 of an inch across, perhaps. As I understand it, rolling or otherwise manipulating teas into these complex, compressed shapes helps maintain the tea quality longer. That is, if there is less surface area available to react to the oxygen in the air surrounding the leaves, then the tea will stay fresher longer. Plus, they're more enjoyable to look at!

After steeping, the leaves did not keep their rolled appearance, obviously, but they were rather like long needles-- they stayed tightly furled, though no longer curled. The leaves after steeping were much less fragrant with the jasmine scent than they were before. Perhaps all that scent was transferred to the water?

The liquor's appearance is pale gold, without even a hint of green. The scent does remind me of the jasmine, but faintly-- an echo of the earlier scent, which seemed so strong when I removed the pearls from the packaging. I'm glad about that, because if the tea was that strong, I don't think it would have been pleasant.

The flavor is surprisingly restrained, for a jasmine-scented thing. I don't really taste the green tea, though I sense it in the rather dry mouthfeel. The tastes on my tongue have an odd "spiking" effect, whereby the flavor of jasmine suddenly pops up its head, then retreats, then pops up again later. I think it has something to do with my breathing pattern, and how the scent in the back of my throat is picked up by my nose as I inhale. That shows me that this tea is mainly being flavored by its scent.

It reminds me of that old story of the poor boy who told his upstairs neighbor (a parsimonious old rich gentleman) how glad he was that the rich old man would cook delicious-smelling food, because it made the poor boy's bowl of rice taste better. The old man was enraged by this and took the poor boy to court to make him pay for having his rice bowl scented by the rich man's food. The judge wisely made the poor boy take out all the money he had, and then shake it, causing the coins to jingle together. The rich old man's eyes lit up with satisfaction at the sound. "There," said the judge, "that sound will be your payment in full."

Anyway, this first cup of tea is all about the scent of jasmine, which gives flavor to the cup by way of the nose.

As always, I feel that I need a second cup of the same steeping, so that I can truly taste what the cup is all about. (This is what I do with my Darjeelings. How will this work with the greens? Let's find out.)

Second cup is noticeably darker in color, a richer orangey-gold color. The flavor now has a spicy note to it that hits near the tip of my tongue. This note was absent in the first cup. That jasmine note is the first thing that hits me, but it recedes a bit upon drinking more (I think my mind is surprised by the flavor, but then slowly comes to ignore it to focus on other impressions.) The green tea flavor now makes its entrance, where before it was overwhelmed by the jasmine scent. There's a lemony flavor somewhere in there. There are more complexities appearing in the aftertaste, like cherry, and wood, and perhaps a hint of green grass. There is that slight bite at the back of my throat to accompany the dry mouthfeel.

As always: Thank you, George, for the very enjoyable pot of tea.

( Cross-posted on the Facebook group, "A Cup of Tea Solves Everything")

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Robert Mullenix, Painter

ROBERT MULLENIX is my friend and a serious artist. His present body of work is very painterly and uses the motif of tightly rendered landscape to think about design issues, as well as those deep issues of the relationship of soul and environment and the complex inner world we inhabit.

Please have a look at his work. And buy something, if you're so inclined!

REVIEW: Silver Needle White Tea, Green Hill Tea

Silver Needle White Tea
Green Hill Tea

Today I review Green Hill Tea's "Silver Needle White Tea." I have not drunk much white tea. This is a taste experiment, for which I can thank George Zhang (again) of Green Hill Tea.

Because I want to learn a bit more about what I'm getting into, I quote the company's Web site:

Silver Needle Tea

White tea is made from pure spring buds and harvested only a few days of the year. Once harvested, white tea is not oxidized or rolled, but simply withered and dried by steaming. Green Hill’s silver needle has exquisitely shaped buds and covered with white down. It has a slightly roasted and sweet taste. White teas are perfect to enjoy in the evening after a light dinner. Avoid drinking them after eating spiced foods, as much of the delicacy of their taste will be lost. .

Brew hint: Place one tea spoon into a cup; add boiling water for 3-7 minute.

And here is a little bit more background, this time from Adagio Tea's Web site.
White tea from China. Silver Needle is among the most revered of Chinese teas, produced in the Fuding and Zhenhe districts of its Fujian province. Gathered only in the few days of early spring, the preparation of this tea is governed by strict requirements to ensure a premium product. This dedication to perfection is evident in the cup, which is sweet and delicate with a clean, airy fragrance.

Almost all teas are handpicked-- at least, the good-quality teas are-- and this kind of tea is quite unusual. Instead of tea made from the leaves of the tea plant, these are made from the buds only. The buds themselves (how I would love to be in a tea garden during its budding, for the fragrance must be astounding) are pale silvery-green, with a white fuzz on the outside. They are perhaps a half-inch long, and are sharp points (hence the name). The aroma is sharp, like fresh-mown hay or grass. It rather tickles my nose to take a sharp sniff! It smells a bit like the feed they give cows on the nearby farm-- rich, with this almost vitamin-like sharpness.

3 cups water filtered through my Brita pot; 6 level teaspoons (because it's not dense at all). Bring water to boil, let cool to around 80F. Steep 3 minutes. Listening to J. S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, to get me into the proper tasting frame of mind. The music is light, effervescent, and airy, as I expect the tea to be.

This is a very clear cup, with a peach color, transparent to the bottom of the cup. It's very light, but it's still distinct. Very light astringency, but no bitterness at all. There is a very slight burn at the back of my throat. The flavor is reminiscent of cantaloupe, melon....

Ah, that all-important second up. As I always maintain, the second cup in a pot is always the best one, because the complex chemistry of the hot tea has had an opportunity to deepen the flavors, and add layers of complexity that are absent in the first cup. The color of the liquor has deepened a bit, to a richer brown-peach color, though still perfectly transparent. The flavor has become richer, with an almost pinelike overtone. Still a very restrained cup of tea.

I don't have enough basis for comparison (against other white teas), but I would say this tea would appeal to those who want an extremely lightly flavored tea, with no hint of bitterness, but with a very slight bite. The flavors are pretty straightforward, without lots of development on the palate over time (that I can discern), but they still remind one of fruit and pine.

As always, thanks to George Zhang of Green Hill Tea for the opportunity to experience his gift of tea.

(Cross-posted at Facebook.)

Monday, April 6, 2009

REQUIRED READING: "Tea and the Internet"

If you have a couple minutes today over your cup of tea, please do yourself a favor and head over to Cha Dao Web site, where you can read about "Tea and the Internet." The writer's nom de plume is Corax, and s/he is scary brilliant. Cha Dao is a great resource for anyone interested in learning more about tea culture, and some of the great teas that you can immerse yourself in.

A taste:

How many Americans (or French, or Latvians) could have known what (say) Bi Luo Chun tea is like before the internet? And unless you lived in San Francisco, and had access to Roy Fong's Imperial Tea Court, where you could go in 1993 to find out what such an 'exotic' tea tasted like? Chances were good, back then, that if you knew the names of such teas, you had read about them in James Norwood Pratt's Tea Lover's Treasury (first edition 1982) or John Blofeld's Chinese Art of Tea (1985), and that their names would remain no more than mere phrases in your mind.

Today, on the other hand, without getting up from your chair (in Peoria or Avignon or Riga), you can pay a virtual visit to the Imperial Tea Court, via their Facebook page, and then go shopping for tea on their commercial website. Moreover, if you are not satisfied with their selection or their prices or their customer service, you can choose other North American vendors who have easy-to-use commercial websites (in addition to Facebook or Twitter accounts), such as Aura Teas, Harney & Sons, Hou De Asian Art, Rishi Tea, and probably five more since I last checked.

As they say: Read it all yourself.

( Cross-posted on Facebook.)

REVIEW: Assam, Lavender Lounge Tea

My tea swap partner on Facebook, Evelyn, sent me the following tea, which I thought to review today.

Lavender Lounge Tea

This tea is a blend, not identified by single-estate status and whatnot. It seems pretty simple. The notes on the packet say: "ASSAM. Slightly malty tones. a.k.a. Irish Breakfast." I find it interesting that English Breakfast is often associated with Chinese Keemun tea, but Irish is associated primarily with Indian Assam.

This brings me to an interesting distinction. (And my pardon to botanists. I am a tea drinker, but I don't know horticulture.) Initially, people only drank Camellia sinensis sinensis, which derives from China. This plant was eventually brought to other regions, where it was cultivated and became regional cultivars. However, Camellia sinensis assamica was also eventually discovered and is native to India, and it is somewhat different from the Chinese variety. (There is apparently a Cambodian tea plant, as well, but I have never heard of anyone drinking it.)

I will quote this article:

Several varieties of C. sinensis are used for tea production; most prominent are the variety of Assam (sometimes called C. sinensis assamica or C. assamica) and the plant of China (sometimes called C. sinensis sinensis), as well as various cross-breads of the two.

The Chinese variety is a small-leaved bush with multiple stems that reaches a height of some 3 meters. Assamica has a single stem and larger leaves; it is usually 6 to 20 meters (20-65 feet) tall if not trimmed. Assamica is a lowland variety of the plant and does not tolerate cold winters, unlike sinensis. It has a higher yield than sinensis. The tea from Assam is exclusively the assamica variety. Most of Ceylon tea too is produced from this variety. Assamica produces a malty, earthy drink, unlike the flowery sinensis.

There is also a Cambodian variety of the plant, C. sinensis parvifolia, with leaves in size between the Assam and Chinese varieties; it is a small tree with several stems.

So that's the difference among the tea leaves, and why the malty teas are so different from the flowery Chinese and Darjeeling varietals.

First steeping: 2 teaspoons loose-leaf tea bags in 2 cups boiling, filtered water, Japanese cast-iron tetsubin, 4 minutes.
Second steeping: 5 minutes

It's a dark-brown cup, somewhat opaque. The tea has a fairly pronounced orangey-citrus flavor. It's a pretty pleasant, serviceable Assam.

The second steeping is likewise opaque, but the flavor is much more muted. This tea can only withstand one steeping.

I'm not truly an Assam drinker. I value the lightness and sharpness of the Darjeelings and some Chinese teas, instead. That being said, because this tea is moderately malty-- as opposed to many Assams I've had, which can seem quite heavy and thick to me-- I find it to be all right, though not fantastic.