Saturday, January 30, 2010

Review: American Tea Room, Puttabong SFTGFOP1Q Darjeeling Muscatel, 2nd Flush 2009

As longtime readers of my reviews know (that is, if they care to remember), I find the Puttabong Estate teas of Darjeeling to be among the greatest in the world. Highgrown, mountain tea plants survive the rough winter and have a shorter growing season than those grown at a lower elevations, causing more intense flavor in the leaves, which is part of why the Himalayan-grown teas of Darjeeling are among the most prized in the world.

Smallish twists of pure black, highly fragrant. When they've been steeped, they take on a reddish-brown hue, fairly dark, indicating a highish level of oxidation, consistent with the way second-flush teas are processed. The aroma of the spent leaves is quite faint, easily overpowered by the other kitchen aromas of this morning's breakfast.

At three minutes' steeping time, about 90C, the liquor is quite a dark reddish-brown, crystal clear to the bottom of the cup. The very first moment, when the tea struck my palate, it was rather strikingly bitter (not a quality I look for in a tea, but not one I despise, either), but it quickly resolved into a very smooth cup, very complex.

When I speak of second-flush Darjeelings, "complex" is the characteristic I most highly prize. Layers of flavor reveal themselves on my palate at every sip. First, that bitter note (which may have been caused by my allowing the steeping to take place slightly longer than 3 minutes; life with an infant makes tea steeping times sometimes fall short of a laboratory's strict methologies); followed by an astringency that dried the tongue, reminiscent of a woody fruitiness, like blackberries or other dark berries; and then I notice this is followed by something akin to an aromatic evergreen resin, then other flavors I can't identify but enjoy.

For the second steeping, which I performed at 2:30, 85C, but it was underwhelmingly weak. I would advise a longer steeping. NOTE ON SECOND AND SUBSEQUENT STEEPINGS: I have sought long and hard for some kind of consensus among wise tea masters of whom I have acquaintance, and none of them agree about how to make a second steeping of a black tea like this Darjeeling. So you kind of have to guess and experiment with a tea until you find something that works for your palate.

I find that most people, when reading reviews of this sort, find them to be unhelpful when trying to recreate the exact taste experience of the writer. If you sat next to me while we drank the exact same cup of tea, you'd say, "Evergreen resin? What in the world are you talking about?" Well, perhaps it's best to paint in broader strokes, to convey the general, overarching experience, rather than try to notate personal taste memories that will not carry over to anyone else.

This Puttabong is enjoyable precisely because, as I allow a sip to sit in my mouth for a few minutes, various flavors slowly reveal themselves, ranging from the bitter, to the sweet, to the woodsy, floral, and fruity, and to things I can't identify but are uniquely characteristic of this estate's tea. It's the sheer range of characters that reveal themselves in this tea, one after another, that is so entrancing. It's by no means a tea that can be experienced at once, but rather one that is drunk as though it's a book, being revealed page by page.

The sweetly bright huigan, which is practically the only Chinese tea word I know (and so, yes, I overuse it; I'll work on that in future), is that retronasal experience when the tea is experienced through the back of the throat, entering up into the nasal passages. Did you know, the human tongue can only perceive five basic flavors-- sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami-- but the nose can perceive literally thousands of variations of aromas. This means that much of our delight in tea is caused by all those scents floating around within them. The retronasal experience of huigan is primarily caused by those smells, divorced from any of the five tastes perceived on the tongue.

There's a reason I spent almost 20 years of my life drinking primarily Darjeeling teas, and this is why: a second-flush Darjeeling can be an engaging, complex, delightful experience. My only problem with it was the strike of bitterness at the beginning of the drinking experience, but following more religiously the #1 Rule of Darjeelings: NEVER OVERSTEEP, would have served me better.


Wojciech Bońkowski said...

Steven, a great review, and I agree with most points.
Far, far better 5 seconds underbrewed than 5 seconds overbrewed.
That second brewing of black tea and especially Darjeeling has also been bothering me. Over a heavy 8 months of exploring various 2009 Darjs, I have not found a single tea that would be as exciting in the 2nd brewing as the 1st.
Logically enough if you underbrew #1 then #2 should be interesting enough. But I've noticed a similar rule to oolong and puer works well: keep #2 -shorter- than #1 (even though #1 was too short for what it should have been). Then #2 can be as nuanced and precised as #1.
Well, just my $.02. Keep well!