Sunday, April 12, 2009

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.]