Norbu Tea has been one of my go-to hookups for weird teas for – well – almost as long as I’ve sipped. Greg Glancy seems to have a palate similar to mine, or at the very least an unrelenting geek-ish lean for teas with stories behind them. I finally had the pleasure to meet the man behind Norbu at World Tea Expo in June. Finding his booth was like hunting down a Wonderland rabbit-hole, but once I did I was glad for it.
One of the strange, new items I picked up from the Tsou-Vayiyana booth he was co-hosting was something dubbed, “Ali Shan Hong Cha”. It already had my attention for having my favorite Taiwanese tea mountain – Ali Shan – in the title. The leaves were ball-fisted like an oolong but darker in appearance. The aroma it gave off reminded me of unsweetened chocolate and oak barrels.
It was one of the first teas I tore into when I returned home.
Without exaggeration, it was unlike any black tea I’d ever tried. When I brewed it Western-style, the first characteristics that emerged were malt and (the aforementioned) unsweetened chocolate. With further infusions, the sweetness kept creeping up until it was indistinguishable from a black tea from that region. A bit of oolong minerality showed up by the third steep. Yes, this lasted three strong, Western-style steeps.
I also found that the longer I steeped it for, the sweeter it grew. Even more so than a Ruby 18. There were quite a few times when I infused this sucker before taking a shower, came out fifteen minutes later, headed off to work, and it was still good. Nary a tannic overtone.
Something was amiss about this so-called “Hong Cha”.
Greg informed me via Twitter that he and the growers had agreed to redub the tea “Ali Shan Red Oolong”, and asked for my thoughts on it. I put my teasnob cap on (more of a metaphoric fez, really), and asked if it was fully oxidized…or only mostly oxidized.
He informed me that it was the latter – 90% oxidized, just shy of being a “Hong Cha” of its prior title. This prompted me to experiment with it some more. I had yet to wrongfu the heck out of it.
One particularly low-key and experimental day, I decided to do it “gongfu-ish”-style to see what would happen. I dusted off my ol’ gaiwan, took about a teaspoon of the ball-fisted leaves, boiled some water (then let it sit for a minute), and played with multiple infusions.
Done this way, the oolong-ish characteristics really showed through. Not in a typical Ali Shan-ish sorta way, though. Far from it. A first infusion gave a medium-to-full-bodied brew like a brandy oolong, while further infusions darkened, felt roastier on the mouthfeel, and developed an alternating palate of wood, leather and…well…more dark chocolate.
If I were a choosing man, though, I would say I preferred the Western approach. It was just dark enough to handle the longer steep times, and more of the flavor was imparted per cup. That…and it handled lazy brewing perfectly.
My kinda tea.