I'm dealing with quite a backlog of partially written reviews, which have been piling up for a while. I'm creating a number of interlocking series of reviews, and this kicks off Review Series Darjeeling.
My great tea friend, Benoy Thapa, is the face of Thunderbolt Tea. He blogs occasionally at the Darjeeling Tea Blog, and his very useful Twitter feed is @DarjeelingTea. Thunderbolt Tea also has a Facebook page, which is another pretty useful way to keep up with him. Quick tea fact: Did you know that the word, Darjeeling, is a reference to the thunderstorms that keep the tea so well watered?
Now, why am I shilling so shamelessly for Benoy? Mainly, as a lover of Darjeeling tea, I appreciate learning about what's happening in Darjeeling, and how the weather is affecting the crops and so on. Plus, it's lovely to think of whether the clouds are hiding the mountains, and which festival is going on, and the like. For me, it's been a great help in gaining a better understanding of the local conditions in which my beloved Darjeeling teas are grown.
Earlier this summer, Benoy sent me simply the most extravagant shipping I've ever seen, with the tea encased in no less than five packages: a paper sack, within a mylar or some such shiny metallic plastic bag, packed with four other teas, all within another mylar bag, within a cardboard box, all sewn into a burlap package covered in sealing wax, with almost every square inch of the package covered in writing for customs officials. Shipping things from overseas to the United States is no mean feat, because the laws governing herbs are so strict. I very much appreciate the great effort Benoy took to ensure this great tea arrived here intact.
Today I'm drinking a Summer '09 Risheehat Estate Clonal Flowery. Now, for those of you who haven't really dug deeply into the world of Darjeeling teas, you have to learn that great teas are like great wines: They are vintages that can differ greatly from region to region, and farm to farm, and season to season. The first flush is the Spring plucking of the leaves, and they typically have rather a lighter touch than the second flush or autumnal flush pluckings. The second flush, which is plucked in summer, is typically more complex and robust than the first flush. The teas from a great estate like Risheehat can be so exciting, because they are unique in the world's tea, with a character distinctly special.
I've found that most high-quality Darjeeling tea leaves have a fairly similar appearance when they are dry: tight, fairly small twists of black leaf, with a bit of golden tippiness and no sign of branches. Once they have been steeped, they take on more varied character. for the Risheehat clonal flowery, we see a bit of reddish-brown, broken leaf, well oxidized, though with bits that have a greenish cast.
This tea had a pretty dark-brown liquor, with the characteristic Darjeeling aroma, very classic; with a lovely, bright floral scent of summer berries. Now that autumn is here in Illinois, with the gray clouds streaming by, it's like drinking a bit of summer in a cup, with bright colors and sharp flavor. The tea has such a sharply defined taste, which is a bit difficult to describe. There's sort of an astringent chocolate, like bitter dark chocolate, overlaid with a fruity high note of berries and brown honey. It's sweet-- requires no sugar or milk at all-- and has a huigan [sweet aftertaste] that moves into more a light cocoa flavor I sense hints of almond nuttiness. (I always think of Ratatouille, in which Remy's brother, upon hearing Remy spout some such nonsense, said, "Oh, I sense nuttiness, all right.")
When drinking this tea, please do not neglect to make a second steeping. I have heard much discussion about how to conduct a second steeping: Some people say only steep a few seconds (10 or 15) on the belief that the leaves, already opened, are ready to release their flavor quickly; others suggest doubling or tripling the length of the steeping, so that you draw the most out of the leaf. I just steeped the same amount as the first time 'round (3 minutes, Third Boil (98C), and poured off. Same dark-brown color. This time the flavor is a bit brighter, absent some of the darker notes that were evident in the first steeping. Slightly more astringent, which means it's a bit dry in the mouth, like a white wine. Not quite the body of the first round, but pleasant enough.
Quickly, go to the Thunderbolt Tea Web site, and buy up some of these wonderful teas before Benoy runs out of them. Many of the first-flush teas are gone, but there are still quite a few great second-flushes available for purchase. Thunderbolt has an amazing selection of high-grown, single-estate teas, and the Web site has good information about each distinct vintage, to give you an idea of what you're buying. And the Autumnal Flush is not far off, I believe!