Monday, July 15, 2013

I'm in Heaven: Darjeeling Tea Boutique, Longview 1st Flush 2013

I'm in Heaven
And my heart beats
So that I can hardly speak
And I seem to find
The happiness I seek
When we're out together
Dancing cheek to cheek

When was the last time you were in the forest, walking along a pathway you've not trodden in, oh, just years, and the delight of seeing that particular curve in the path, or coming upon that expected clearing filled with bluebells makes you wonder how you could ever have waited so long to come back? Well, I just stumbled upon a panorama I've woefully been missing without knowing it.

My friends at Darjeeling Tea Boutique sent me a package today, and I just happened to have enough time in my schedule to open it up and make a cup. As my irregular readers know, I was in business making tea reviews with a friendly regularity for a bit over a year, and then I stumbled when I found every cup I had to drink required an accompanying essay. With a clever twist, or an amusing anecdote, or something so it wasn't just some guy saying, "Oh, well, this tea from x is plummy, with notes of pretension, and an underlying insouciance I find vaguely similar to motorboats and Chopin nocturnes, if you know what I mean, and I think you do." 

So feeling refreshed from a long hiatus, I can say, I am delighted that I have a decent Darjeeling in my clutches again. It's been a long time-- so long, it's a bit embarrassing, to tell the truth.  And by decent, I mean this particular cup is so fragrant, so vibrant, I wonder how I've been living on such gruel for so long.

Using tea terms, this is SFTGFOPI Clonal AV2, First Flush 2013, Longview Tea Estate. Or "Longview Queen," for short. 

Longview Estate, in Darjeeling, India, is at a lower elevation than many other tea estates, though some parts of the estate climb pretty high, allowing for that prized "highgrown tea" appellation. I can't tell you at what altitude this Longview Queen tea is grown, but it seems the tea has gotten enough sun and at such an elevation that this presents like a quite nice Darj., with the brightness and complexity you are looking for.

In contradistinction to many tea connoisseurs (and I'm merely an appreciator, so pardon my clumsy attempt to speak of things above my station), I don't hold much to making tea The English Way when it comes to a good Darjeeling. I go with my own modified gongfu method, which is Chinese for "Careful preparation: lots of leaf, short steep times, as many steepings as you can get." I find that even non-Chinese teas do well with this method.

{ I wish I had a dog's nose }
I'm on my third steeping, using my gaiwan set, which is a Chinese lidded cup. When you drink a cup of tea, first start by smelling the leaves when they're dry. Just open up the tin or container and take a good whiff. Pay attention to what you are smelling. Remember, your mouth only has five different tastes it can identify, but the nose can identify tens of thousands of nuances. Sadly, we're from a species that only has a very limited sense of smell, but we must do the best with what we have. Have a look at the leaves. Are they whole? Are they curly, tightly balled, long, short, broken, whole, no stem, lots of stem?

My second step is to get my lidded up hot with boiling water, pour off the water, and pour in a large amount of leaf-- perhaps two to three tablespoons' worth. I cover the cup with the lid, and I shake the leaves gently-- I don't want to bruise the gin, as it were. Open the lid lightly, and allow the aroma of the leaves, which are now beginning to wake up after a long sleep, to catch you. Is it different from what you smelled a few moment before, when the tea was dry and cool? Does it smell like flowers, or like spices, or like fruit, or like something else you can't quite put your finger on? Have a quick look. Are the tea leaves opening up a bit? Ideally, they will end up looking like, well, leaves fresh off a tree, not like powder or dust.

After this, I pour the hot water over the leaves, from as great a height as I can without splashing everywhere, especially on myself. Hot temperature plus pressure equals flavor and aroma. Quickly cover the tea with the lid and wait for less time than you'd think-- 30 seconds or so, not much more. 

{ This dog looks like
the Dowager Countess Violet
from Downton Abbey, no? }
NOTE FOR DARJEELING NEWBIES: Don't let your tea oversteep. Darjeeling is the Dowager Countess of tea. It's temperamental and likely to give you a biting, sharp reply if you don't treat her with the deference she deserves. Unlike a typical Twining's or whatever you may be used to, you can't just pop the tea in the water and let it sit for 5 minutes or so, or whenever you feel like pulling out the teabag. No, no, no, and again I say, No. Just-under-boiling water and short steeps. Say it again: "short steeps." If you let it go long, you'll walk away thinking, "I guess I don't like Darjeeling tea," when you probably just did it wrong. A good way would be to steep perhaps 2.30 or 3.00 minutes max. But if you do this in the Chinese gongfu method, with lots of leaf and short steeps, we're talking 20-second steepings at maximum for the first couple times. Darjeelings don't stand up to multiple steepings as well as oolongs or puerhs do, but you should get a good three or four steepings out of them, maybe even up to six if you have something good going.

Again, listen to the tea. Are its leaves starting to "wake up" and unfurl? What color are they now? This Darjeeling Tea Boutique tea, SFTGFGOP1 Clonal AV2 First Flush, Longview Estate tea is a multi-hued leaf with visual variations between forest green to a ruddy rust brown, with a predominantly reddish hue. Plenty of leaf, quite a few broken leaves, a few that are whole from stem to stern. And fragrant! If someone could turn this into a perfume and give it to my wife, well, I'd get even less tea writing done than I do.

{ Gongfu does not mean karate.
It means making tea the smart way. }
With gongfu, slowly increase the number of seconds you steep the tea on each pour. Start with 30, move up to 40 or 45, and start to judge how much you will need to increase to get more out of the leaf from that point on. You can steep up to several minutes toward the end, trying to get the last bit of flavor and aroma from these wonderful leaves. You have to experiment, play around with the leaves yourself, to see what they will do for you. Pay attention to the aroma by swirling the tea in your mouth and using your nose over the cup. Notice how the tea's chi is affecting you-- chi being the mystical Chinese concept of energy, or power; but from my worldview, it's probably the felicitous combination of caffeine with a number of relaxants, heat, and the time it takes to slow down and enjoy something.

Over time, you'll forget what the tea tastes like. I did. Even though I've had thousands of cups of Darjeeling, it's been a dry spell for far too long, and now I'm reveling in the unexpected-but-familiar experience that a good Darjeeling will allow you.

One of these days, I shall travel to Darjeeling to experience these teas at the estates themselves. Until then, I'll settle for breathing a bit of Darjeeling right here in Illinois.

Thank you, Darjeeling Tea Boutique, for the lovely flight of tea!