Mandal Gaon is a village in the state of West Bengal, India—in the Darjeeling region. Like many villages in the area, the inhabitants are mostly of Gurkha descent; a Nepalese ethnic group brought over to India by the British to work the newly planted tea gardens. Since then, over the course of time, the towns they occupied also became hubs for individually owned gardens. While they rarely produced tea themselves—save for private consumption—they did provide fresh tea leaf for plantation factories.
Mandal Gaon had one such plot run by Mr. Moktan. Toward the end of the 20th century, as Indian tea planatation laws grew more lax, private growers “cropped” up. Moktan was one of them, changing out his potato and corn fields for tea garden space. Situated at an altitude of 5,500 feet, and with the benefit of Darjeeling weather, he planted close to 8,000 small leaf sinensis chinary.
Toward the end of any year, content creators, influencers, media pundits (social or otherwise) are encouraged to create look-backs or listicles of the year-that-was. Throughout my long and industrious “career” as a tea blogger, I’ve made such reflections in the past. Usually commenting on how weird the year was, or how wonderful some aspect of it turned out. 2020, though . . . ?
Yeah, I don’t wanna.
It was a terrible, terrible, TERRIBLE year by all objective measures. I won’t even go into detail as to why, I don’t have to, most of you reading this have felt the “Terrible” in your own lives. While I got away from feeling most of the brunt of 2020, my mental state did not. To the point where I took an unintended hiatus from writing anything for close to three months.
The result of that was a rather unwieldy backlog of tea stories I had yet to tell. Some I may not even get to, come to think of it. So, to close the year out (almost a month after it ended), I thought I’d egress—not with a story—but with a theme. For you see, over the course of the year, something(s) weird and wonderful did chance by me. White teas, quite a few weird and wonderful white teas.
I shattered a gaiwan lid. Even “funnier”? This was the second such gaiwan lid I’d shattered this year. My luck with even the most basic teaware was middling at best. Like any “softboi”, I posted this guy-winey gaiwan lament online. First person to comment on this tragedy was Rajiv Lochan.
He basically said, “I have a gaiwan for you, just send me your address.”
Surprised, I tried to dissuade him. Anyone who knows Rajiv can tell you . . . there’s no dissuading him once he gets an idea in his head. Especially a generous one. On top of that, he also wanted to throw in some tea surprises. From Doke Tea, of course, the garden he owned and that his progeny operated in Bihar, India.
Photo by Rajiv Lochan.
Not one to argue, I gave my mailing address again. A couple of weeks after “The Shattering”, a package arrived. In it were three teas, and the brand-spankin’ new gaiwan.
First tea I used to break it in? Doke Black Fusion. Second Flush, 2020. As he had hoped.
This year’s version was very chocolaty. More so than it ever had been before. I wondered about this to him, and he gave a coy reply about “more water” that year. Whatever that meant.
In later days, I dug through the other teas he included. One was another Doke Black Fusion version he really wanted me to get to.
In 2014, Rajiv took some black tea they made, and stuck it in an earthenware pot. Just to see what would happen. Six years later, he took some out … and sent it to me.
I remember the 2014 batch quite well; very honey-nut-spice-y. Man, it REALLY changed over the years. Some of the young profile was there, but it got really earthy. Like a Dian Hong, but still sweet. Not stale at all. That and it made me feel very relaxed.
I’m never relaxed.
And I certainly didn’t appear that way for the next few months. No clue why, but my anxiety for most of the last summer/early autumn was in overdrive. Nothing in particular was triggering it, at least as far as I could discern. A tea friend in Canada—Phil Holmans— in particular took it to heart. So much so that I received a package from him a week or so later, via his Halifax-based tea operation—World Tea House.
Among the teas included were my favorite Assam, a few Darjeelings I favored, yellow tea from the Great Mississippi Tea Company, and—as if by sheer serendipity—more Doke garden teas. Not that I was in any shortage of them. Still . . . ?
Again, at Rajiv’s urgings, I dipped into a tea he recommended. This time, the Diamond Green. As I’ve confessed on this blog before, their green tea was rarely one I liked. He said this year’s was much different. Again, he said, it was because of the water.
It was damn near perfect. Probably the best iteration, yet. I don’t ever recall it tasting as sweet as it did in my cup that day.
However, the biggest surprise was the Doke Rolling Thunder “oolong” from this year. The Lochans changed up the recipe several times over the years. Most of the time, it just resembled any other Assam; malty and nutty. This year was markedly different.
Not sure how or why, but it tasted like a Darjeeling. Keep in mind, it’s made from assamica leaf, so that shouldn’t have been possible. But there it was, muscatel notes on a semi-oxidized assamica tea. Yet again . . . Rajiv credited the water.
Photo by Rajiv Lochan
I looked again at the note that World Tea House Phil had included with the tea gift.
Throughout 2020, whether with merit or none, we’ve all gone through some mental anguish. Some more than others. In terms of tragedies, I’ve experienced very little throughout this trying/travailing year, but even I experienced bouts of mental and emotional exhaustion at the constant upheaval. One of the few centering activities I held on to was tea. That and talking to tea people
And, to date, I haven’t found a more caring circle of friends. No matter what corner of the world they hail from.
If there is one prediction I never would have made for this blog in 2020, it’s that I would spend at least five articles talking about one plant. Okay . . . true, there are four hundred articles here that talk about Camellia sinensis, but this year, I started a saga on Chamerion angustifolium. Also known by the more common name: fireweed. Or in its Russian “tea” form: Ivan Chai.
Image owned by Rus-Bay
Since March, I’ve catalogued numerous ways in which this herb is grown and processed, done terroir analyses, and even commented on how well it blends with actual tea. Through it all, there were a couple of question I hadn’t answered. How did it taste un-processed? How well did it taste young? And how well did it taste aged? Well . . . I found a small company in Moscow that—quite handily—answered all three.
Rus-Bay is a small online shop based in Moscow that specializes in just products made from fireweed. The shop is run by a web developer, Max Kirpichev, whom I had a delightful e-mail correspondence with when I asked about his vendor outfit. Max was already a fan of Chinese tea, but decided to branch out his exploration toward the national drink from his childhood. Around 2014(-ish), he pondered the idea of starting a shop that specialized in Ivan Chai, but for selling it to international consumers.
Since the shop was small, he tried many different varieties of Ivan Chai before settling on six that exemplified the diverse profiles the herb could take on. Of the ones he sent me, there were three I really wanted to feature. Not only because they were each processed (or in one case, not processed) in different ways, but they were also produced in three different years. One was produced in the spring of 2019, one from 2018, and the last was made in 2017.
For the sake of time travel, I’m going to start with the youngest.
As the name implies, this was plucked and processed in May of 2019. It was cultivated from the new leaf sprouts. So, for all intents and purposes, this was very similar in processing to a bud-heavy black tea. The difference, though? The leaf germs were cut. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing here; fireweed leaves are quite large, so (probably?) the sprouts were of comparable size.
In appearance, this looked like any other black tea made from Camellia sinensis. Even stranger, it smelled like it, too. The aroma was sweet, floral, slightly woody, and gave off Ceylon vibes.
The liquor didn’t brew up crimson like a black tea, but sure did taste like one. Those Ceylon vibes translated to the liquor perfectly. When infused like a black tea—Western style—sweetness took point, followed by a honey-ish middle (a fireweed staple), and ended on an alternating floral and gentle malt note. Many a summer afternoons were spent with this one.
The second one on the docket was plucked in July of 2018 . . . and that was it. Okay, not entirely. There was one step in processing before being cut to a BOP-ish standard. The leaves were sun-dried almost like a white tea. This resulted in a dry leaf aroma that reminded me of green honeybush by way of lemon verbena. Citrus and honey aromatics played with my nostrils, but there was also an added depth to it—probably due to age.
I brewed it up like I would any old assamica white tea; 3 to 4 grams of leaf per 4oz. of boiled water, and a steep for three-to-five minutes. This resulted in a gold-to-amber liquor with a deep honey profile. Not deep as in, full-bodied, deep as in . . . wise?
The taste reminded me of a three-year-aged Bai Mu Dan, a white tea just gaining that honey profile as it ages in cold storage. Except, I know that the honey lean comes from the natural taste of the leaves. Even when oxidized that profile shows through. It was just less refined, yet more vibrant, in the unfettered form. It even worked well iced.
This one was . . . nuts. In the best way possible. Brace yourselves.
I actually had to contact Max again to get the full story on this sucker. The pressed snails of fireweed leaf were plucked-‘n-processed in July of 2017. And unlike other forms of Ivan Chai, these were not just oxidized, they were fermented. Not in the puerh “microbial ripening” way, either; actual fermentation occurred here.
The leaves were handled in the traditional Russian way. What did that mean exactly? Well, that meant the leaves were bruised by hand before withering. Granted this is always done, even with your run-o’-the-mill oxidized Ivan Chai, but there was a difference here. Instead of automatically withering after bruising, the fresh leaves were left to stew in their own juices before withering. This allowed the natural yeast on the leaves to eat the sugars present within the leaves.
Now, hold on, my brain said. Yeast? Sugars? This sounds like ethanol fermentation.
Yeah, that’s exactly what this is. The leaves were left to legit ferment and create alcohol. After that stage occurred, the leaves were spread out in a thin layer (sorta on top of each other), so that they created a consistent sheet, and then they were wrapped with a thin cloth to retain shape. For a few days, these leaf-roll-ups were left in the sun. Finally, they were cut in to individual, snail-like sections, and given a final drying. This resulted in . . . a tea experience I’ve never had before in my life.
The site recommended using one snail and a 500ml teapot. I did exactly that and infused the leaf-snail until the liquor darkened.
Basically, I followed Max’s YouTube video on how to brew it.
Following a five-minute steep, the finished brew was . . .
Insanely good. Beyond any herbal infusion experience I’d ever—well—experienced. The craziest thing about it was the taste. It reminded me of a Spanish or Irish coffee. The full body was like coffee, the bite was like whiskey. I even had to ask Max if this had been aged in a liquor barrel or something. He said all that was done to it was the fermentation. Somehow, after the drying phrase, it still kept the liquor lean in the aromatics.
No alcohol, but some of the lovely kick. No side-effects. Seriously, it doesn’t. I had to consult with my tea scientist comrade—Eric Scott—just to be on the safe side. He explained how all that worked and assuaged my fears.
No wonder Russians fell in love with this damn plant.
With some of the smaller snail chunks, I tried to gong fu it a bit.
Not quite as successful as the potting method, but still delicious. At shorter infusions, it reminded me of an aged oolong, due to a distinct plum-to-prune note. Not nearly as strong on the liquor bite. Both methods worked splendidly. So much so . . . that I ordered two more bags of the stuff prior to this write-up. (Just in case.)
Over the last six months, Ivan Chai has replaced regular, caffeinated tea as my morning cuppa. I read somewhere that caffeine in the morning was a bad idea; that it messed with a person’s cortisol levels if consumed shortly after waking. It was best to wait a couple of hours before partaking. With Ivan Chai, that wasn’t a problem. It gave me my tea fix, and—somehow—I felt energized after imbibing it.
It truly is a weird, wonderful herb. I know I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. And I guess, for now, my Ivan Chai saga draws to a close. That is, unless I find another unusual way it’s made. Maybe there’s an Ivan Chai oolong look-alike out there?
I recently noticed I don’t cover a lot of matcha on this here blog. There are some completely innocuous reasons for that: (1) everyone is already covering matcha just fine, and (2) when I do cover matcha, I tend to go a little . . . overboard.
Back in June, I was tagged in an Instagram post by O5 Tea. It featured a very familiar plant.
Image owned by O5 Tea.
Pedro, one of the tea outfit’s co-owners referenced my first Ivan Chai article to go along with something they just produced for their brick-‘n-mortar shop and website. I remember having a conversation with Pedro right after posting the article. He mentioned they were heading somewhere to pick fireweed, and that I should join them. Up in Canada.
As long-time readers already know, I’m a bit of an old hat (and advocate) of sheng cha produced outside of Yunnan province, China. I’ve devoted the last decade or so to trying sheng cha from countries along (or near) the Yunnanese border. The Phongsaly region of Laos, the Kokang region of Myanmar, the northern provinces of Vietnam, states of eastern India, and—finally—the hill countries of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai provinces in Thailand.
However, while my palate was definitely well-rounded, my reference to these products as “border sheng” might’ve been incorrect. Or even worse, misinformed. And this clarity came about because of an unassuming tasting of two factory-specific Thai “puerhs” that fell under the brand: Hong Tai Chang.