Saturday, November 5, 2011

Review: RARE TEA REPUBLIC, Phoobsering Special Oolong, 2011

Madame Dugazon Awaiting Tea and L'Amour  
I have only just heard of a new company, Rare Tea Republic. Their website says they focus on small-parcel, single-estate, fresh tea.

Their Phoobsering Special Oolong Organic, which comes from the Phoobsering Estate in Darjeeling, India. Interestingly, the package I received from them gives the plucking date, April 1, 2011. This is precisely the kind of information I'm looking for when purchasing a tea. I want to know who, what, where, when, how and probably the why of any serious tea. Even the best tea, if it's been sitting in a bin too long, will degrade to the point where you'd be better off drinking cheaper but fresher stuff (not counting puerhs or certain oolongs, which benefit from age).

So what do we know about Phoobsering? It's high: 6000 feet (though I hasten to stay, I used to live with my sister in Los Alamos, NM, which is at 7200 feet; However, Los Alamos is covered in nuclear weapons labs, not green tea plantations, so there's that.) It's one of the major estates in India, and has been around from the beginning of tea cultivation in Darjeeling, and it ranges from about 3000 to 6000 feet. Apparently, the Special Oolong Organic is from their higher slopes, which means it should have benefited from the harsher, colder winters, which help intensify the flavor of high-grown Darjeelings.

The April date indicates a first-flush tea, so you would expect it to be lighter in body and flavor, and also a bit less complex than the leaves from the same plant a little later in the season. First-flush Darjeelings are very much in vogue in Germany (and other European countries, I suppose, as well, though I don't know which ones), but it hasn't caught on in the United States as much. We're a coffee-swilling country; so something light, delicate, and subtle as a first-flush Darj. is typically not to our taste.

The directions given by the tea procurer call for 3 tsp per cup at 190F. Pfshaw! We are the makers of manners, and prudish customs bow before great tea drinkers! And me, too. I decided to take their "oolong" designation seriously and make the tea gongfu style: lots of leaf, lots of short steepings.

1st steeping: 92C, 50s
Light, not surprisingly. No trace of bitterness. Highly fragrant, as you'd hope from a Darjeeling. Tastes much like a beautiful-quality Darjeeling, but I can't really grab hold of how processing it as a Darjeeling sets it apart from other Darjeelings sufficiently to make much difference.

2nd steeping: 92C, 40s
More body. The cup is a rich amber, as most 1st-flush Darjeelings tend to be. Slight hint of a bite to the cup-- which is something I prize in a Darjeeling. (For I like my tea, cheese, wine, and women opinionated.) The complexity is starting to develop on the palate. Tastes rather green, a touch sweet-vegetal.

My second-tea-taster-in-house, Gregory, says it's good. And he's no slouch when it comes to high-quality teas, even though he's 9 years old. But now he's escaped his homework/tea tasting to play Legos, so I'm on my own.

3rd steeping: Just off the boil, 55s
Strong amber color to the cup, perfectly clear to the bottom. The leaves have unfurled entirely, with quite a bit of the two-leaves-and-a-bud. A bit more breakage on the leaves than I would expect. Leaves quite uniformly light-forest green. Buds floating about. There's a sort of faint but hot spiciness to the aroma of the wet leaves, underneath the sweetness. It's not a particularly floral tea, but the allusive aroma is so very attractive. Happily, the cup closely follows the aroma (which is not typically the case). The flavor unfurls in the mouth in waves, as one breathes. The huigan, which is what you sense mainly by the aroma coming up through the sinus passages, is pleasing, direct, strong in the middle register but without much at the high or low end. Because it's a light tea with a resonant middle register, if it were an opera singer, I'd classify this as a light mezzo-soprano, a jeunes dugazon, which is like unto a young mother, just past the first blush of youth but not yet into her full maturity. Lovely, light, a bit inexperienced, not overly complicated or carrying too much baggage.

4th steeping: Just off the boil, 1 min
My wife is making coffee in the kitchen, where I make my tasting today. SO . . . that means the tea currently steeping may just have a delightfully beany aroma, a strong, black, smokiness, and whatnot. I may have to evacuate to even sense the tea at all. As a side note: Any tea shop that also sells coffee will have to contend with this, and they'll have to choose robust teas that will stand out among the coffee scents, which are much more pervasive.

The tea is still going strong, and a bit of mineral flavor is starting to make itself felt. The flavor is a bit uninflected, without many complex overtones. Again, this is fairly typical of first-flush Darjeelings. If you are looking for overwhelming complexity, go for those second-flushes.

5th steeping: Just off the boil, 3 min
Well, at this point, the tea has lost its punchy interest; that is, it's still worth drinking, but there's nothing much to be added by further description. Subsequent steepings, if any, will most likely be the same, just progressively less so as the flavor fades into insubstantiality.

Overall Impressions
As a first-flush Darjeeling, it's lovely, and it survived a number of steepings. That being said, I don't quite understand this tea as an oolong. Perhaps the vintage needs a few seasons of rest to develop and come into its true character; or perhaps a light roast may help to bring out something hidden in its quality. Now, because I chose not to follow their directions, I missed the opportunity to have all the layers of flavor on top of one another like some complicated Austrian torte. However, I would rather drink my tea the way I read books: in chapters, with a story developing over time.

THANK YOU, Rare Tea Republic, for this first opportunity to get to know your tea. I do hope you'll continue to provide these higher-end teas and help with convincing Americans that tea can be amazing. This has been a good first impression of your work, and I'm grateful for your generosity.