Friday, July 23, 2010

Tasting Notes: Makaibari Estate 1st-Flush Darjeeling 2010

There was a little girl who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was very, very good; but when she was bad, she was horrid.

Behold the little Infanta Margarita at the center of Velázquez's masterpiece, Las Meninas. There's the painter himself, behind and to the left, rendering the scene that is viewed as the pinnacle of his work. The Infanta has seven attendants, plus a portrait painter, plus a dog, to keep her mildly amused. Her royal parents are watching the scene (you can see them in the mirror behind Velázquez), to ensure that he paints their little darling in the best light possible. Well, Sr. Velázquez managed to keep his position with his patron, even though you can just see the petulance seething under those little blond locks. Velázquez subtly leads us to understand that Her Cuteness can be quite the terror, and I'm certain this pampered princess would have remained so until well into adulthood. Delightful when you can catch her in the right mood, but watch out if she feels cross! Notice, there's not a smile in the room, and the attendants share a distinct tension as they await the next tempest royale. I feel for her future husband.

I am in love with 1st-flush Darjeelings, having drunk gallons of the stuff. But in general, I find this tea to be as touchy as old cats and dying empires, which, Mark Helprin assures us in Soldier of the Great War, "viciously insist upon decorum." Anything more than the lightest touch, and you end up with a brew that is harsh, bitter, and angry; but with gentleness and proper handling, as yielding and refreshing as a Spring meadow.

Arbor Teas sent me an enjoyable though rather temperamental 1st-flush Darjeeling from the Makaibari Estate, which I am sampling today. I've gone through several different iterations to get the tea just right, and I know that once I hit it, it'll be fireworks. By the third steeping, I've managed to get quite a delightful brew, though I'm certain the best is ahead. Just a bit more patience, and this should be very, very good indeed.

Not to be deterred, I shall try a fourth time and take notes as I go.

1 tsp per cup boiling water, allowed to cool to maybe around 88C to 92C. The reason for this is that, as a greenish 1st-flush, I want to minimize bitterness. I'll steep for 2:30. Again, the imperative here is to avoid the bitterness I experienced the first time out of the gate, when I first received the tea a couple days ago. Considering water: I use regular tap water, but which I have placed in a receptacle containing plenty of Japanese "white" charcoal for a day or so. I find the charcoal (which can be purchased online) eliminates the chlorine flavor in Chicago water, as well as adding a bit of body to the mouthfeel, which really rounds out the tea in a way that distilled or heavily filtered water does not. After steeping the tea, I decant and allow the tea to rest for maybe 3 to 5 minutes. This allows a bit further oxidation of the tea in the pot before I drink from it, thus allowing me to get at some of the more complex notes that are absent without oxidation. I used to notice that the second cup of every pot was much better than the first; so I just decided, why not just let the pot set and skip the less-flavorful first cup altogether?

The dry leaves are brightly aromatic, with a color ranging from pale green to black. My 18-month-old baby, Charis, is complaining now that I've taken away the tea jar from her, where she was breathing deeply to enjoy the smell. Catching the aroma is an important part of the tea-drinking experience, and I hope my readers know enough to stick their nose in the bag and get a good whiff. There is often an interesting contrast between the nose of the tea and the flavor on the tongue, which broadens the experience. Charis found the nose to be quite charming, though hinting at a lack of structure in the middle register. We'll see if how her advice plays out. I found the aroma to be bright and sharp, quite floral and a bit dusty. Although the label does not indicate so, I would expect from the size of the leaves upon steeping that this would be FTGFOP1, with perhaps a 60% oxidation.

Rich, deep amber, like middle-grade maple syrup. The aroma matches that of the dry leaves quite closely. The wet leaves, though, have taken on a completely different character, like that of a grape arbor. DO YOURSELF A FAVOR and always smell the wet leaves, once they've been steeped. While the tongue can identify five flavors, the nose can perceive literally thousands, and the aroma of tea leaves is not to be missed.

The flavor: Now that I've succeeded getting in within the sweet spot of this tea, how to describe? Bright on the tongue, but without being overbearing. Some complexity, mostly in texture, but with a bright note of flavor in the middle palate with a honeylike sweetness and a deep berry note in the upper register. It's dry, like a white wine; and the taste lingers on the tongue for quite a long time, slowly developing to a woodier, darker flavor as it rests on the palate and in the throat.

This is an excellent example of a highgrown Darjeeling. It's bright, enjoyable, and treated correctly can produce a light but memorable cup. But people with little experience with drinking Darjeelings must be warned that oversteeping this tea will kill it. If you find the tea to be bitter or difficult to drink, try a slightly lower steeping temperature, and go for a little less time than you ordinarily would. 2 to 2.5 minutes should be sufficient, and it will also allow multiple steepings of this quite lovely tea.

Arbor Teas, $12.50/3oz