Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

Author: lazyliteratus Page 2 of 39

In Search of the Tea Tree God

Several months ago, I had a conversation with a fellow tea nerd about the origin of the tea tree. Y’know, small talk. During the dialogue, he uttered the following assertion that made my imagination boil over like an unrestrained kettle.

No one had found the “god” tea tree, yet. Meaning: the tree from which all varieties, subspecies, and cultivated varieties stemmed. Naturally, for a long-standing, amateur student of the leaf, the notion was one that I held near and dear. I just hadn’t heard it put so succinctly

Image mooched from Wikipedia.

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The White Teas of Araksa

The Araksa Tea Plantation is, by its own website’s declaration, one of the oldest in Chiang Mai province, Thailand. That’s not to say that it’s the oldest garden, or the oldest processor of teas. But by modern, Western-ish tea garden standards, that appears to be true.

Image owned by Araksa.

Araksa—which in Sanskrit means “Preserve”—was first plotted in 1939, utilizing assamica trees (by clone or seed) that grew plentifully in the area. Northern Thailand has a rich history of tea processing, dating back as far as the 1200s. Sheng puerh(-like) tea is the stock and trade for some of the Thai hill tribes in the area. But more established plantations were a rarity.

Like many such enterprises, though, this particular garden was abandoned, likely due to shifting economic whims. As a result, the garden went feral for several decades. It wasn’t until 2014, when the garden shifted to new owners, that tea production of a sort resumed. However, making tea alone wasn’t the sole emphasis.

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The Black and White of Benifuki

Benifuki is an interesting Japanese tea tree cultivar. For one, it’s a cross between a cultivar heralding from the assamica variety, and another cultivar of the sinensis variety. A cross-breeding of this sort was to create a high-yielding cultivar designed for black tea and oolong production. Back in the 1960s, and even further back, Japan hoped to make black tea to compete with nearest rival, Sri Lanka. But those “plans” were waylaid. That probably also contributed to why the cultivar wasn’t officially registered until the early 1990s.

For more information on the cultivar, I suggest checking out My Japanese Green Tea’s article on the subject. Quite insightful.

Since then, the cultivar has been utilized to make, not only Japanese black tea (wakocha), but also different forms of sencha. It’s a pretty resilient li’l clonal. And somehow . . .

I may have had a hand in convincing a vendor to convince a farmer to make a white tea from it.

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A Rohini White Tea Rumble

Sometimes, all it takes is a photograph to get me excited.

Image owned by Shiv Saria. 2017.

This was posted back in November of 2017 by one Shiv Saria. The tea in question was a Darjeeling white tea hailing from the Rohini tea estate. In most cases, that would be where the story ends, but if you’ve frequented this blog enough, you know there’s more to the story than that.

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Tea at Sea

I have a good reason for not updating this here blog in awhile, honest. For the last week or so, I was on vacation. As indicated by this dorky tourist capture.

No regrets.

Short summary: I was on a cruise with a gaggle of family members. All part of a makeshift family gathering that reunited my dad with all of his siblings. By “all”, I mean—yes—there are quite a few of them. A few of us in the next generation just happened to be included in the package deal. This particular cruise line and destination route weren’t new to me; I’d done the Ensenada/Catalina run a little over ten years prior. I liked it then, and I liked it now.

What had changed in the intervening years, however, were my tea proclivities. I wasn’t nearly as snobby particular back then, as I am now. That, and prior to the trip, I was relying on California water for my brewing. For the first few days, I got around that in a very simple way.

I drank coffee.

Unlike with tea, coffee still tastes like coffee, no matter the water. And decaf coffee had about a little over a third more caffeine than the average cup of black tea. So, for my morning starters, I swigged the black swill. But that could only go on for so long.

After one day at sea, it became apparent that I couldn’t keep this up forever. As . . . “open” as I was to the darker drink, my palate demanded something far smoother. Luckily, I remembered to pack a tumbler and bag of Giddapahar estate Darjeeling.

(2017, second flush. Some of you know how significant that vintage is.)

Just a mere whiff of muscatel brought me back to my senses, and the sip was like forbidden divine nectar to a withdrawal-parched tongue. During breakfast buffets aboard the ship, it was easy to arrive with tumbler in tow. But that wasn’t always feasible later on in the day. After all, one of the tenets of touristing is having as little on your person as possible, save for necessities.

Tea wasn’t a necessity. Plus, when you have a bladder the size of an acorn, finding a bathroom immediately after hitting the gong fu sauce—especially in Mexico—was a challenge. Tumbler-brewed, loose leaf tea turned into a morning only thing. For the midday boost, an alternative was needed.

Enter the Arnold Palmer.

Instant iced teas on cruise ships are middling in taste, at best. Sure, you could sweeten it, but that turns into way too much sugar fast. Luckily for me, the buffet area on the boat had their iced tea dispenser right next to the lemonade. Half one, half the other, and I was set.

Although, when wandering the ship, it was really difficult to look sophisticated in the bars with a sippy cup.

On the third day—our only day without a port of call—one of my aunts pointed out something on the ship itinerary that I’d missed. Apparently, one of the dining areas had an afternoon tea service that day. Up until then, I had no plans for the day at sea; aside from roaming the ship like a drunk seagull. That changed in minutes.

When I mentioned my plans, another aunt and one of my cousins expressed interest in tagging along, which both surprised and delighted me. I had every intention of attending it on my own, but—as we all know—tea is better when shared. The pastries and sandwiches provided by the ship were fantastic; the display, simple but elegant.

The tea? Um . . . okay, I won’t mention the brand that the ship carried, and I actually respect the company in question. However, the line of teas available ranged from black blends to tisanes, but with a heavier emphasis on the herbals. As I recall, they only had two black teas to choose from, one of which was a cream Earl Grey.

And it tasted like candy-flavored soap.

I’m not sure if it was the ship water; it certainly wasn’t the brewing. I did my own damn brewing! At this stage in my relationship with the leaf, I think I know how I like my Earl Greys. Whatever the reason, the blend did not work. The only way I could make it palatable was loading it with sugar.

That aside, I had a great time. The entire cruise went great. I don’t travel much. In my old-ish age, I’ve come to realize, I only like traveling when I’m being corralled around like a herd animal—cruises included.

I’m not sure if this serves as a definitive “advice” article on how to cruise for tea. If you’re incredibly picky, the safest bet is to bring your own, and adhere to the travails of a travel tea set. I started off by doing that, but it became readily apparent I had to lighten up and loosen up.

Example: on the last morning before debarkation, I hastily double-tea-bagged with breakfast. And didn’t mind it. If you can relax a bit on your usual rules, just go with the flow, you’ll find other ways of making it work.  After all, it’s a vacation.

Tea at the Temple Gates

On the odd occasion, I leave the house to hunt for tea. It’s a rare occurrence—much like a hermitic groundhog hailing the arrival of spring—but it’s been known to happen. Sometimes that urge falls upon me at night, on a Friday. And on one such night in the spring of 2018, I found myself at The Speakteasy Underground.

Purveyor of this nighttime tea gathering in Portland, Steve Odell—whom I’ve mentioned on this blog a few times—served up something particularly interesting.

It was a Mao Feng green tea hailing from Meng Ding Mountain in Sichuan province, China. Originally, I almost refused it. I wasn’t the biggest fan of Chinese greens, but with very little coaxing, I acquiesced. And it . . . was heavenly; equal parts creamy and sweetly vegetal. I hadn’t tried a pan-fried green quite like it.

Steve regaled the crowd with how he got the tea, and waxed wizardly about sourcing it from a bonafide tea temple.

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“Glass” Half Full

I’ve been studying the Bible a lot, lately.

Wait! Don’t turn away. I swear this isn’t proselytizing, and—yes—this still deals with tea. Plus a whole lot more. It may be a tad unwieldy to navigate this, here, narrative. But we’ll make it together. Okay? Okay. Moving on . . .

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The Invoices of Autumn

While most of the world above the equator is currently complaining about winter, my mind is still stuck in autumn.

At least, that is, from a tea perspective.

Of all the seasonal flushes in India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal, autumn is considered a dumping ground. It’s a chance for gardens to make up for any lost product movement from the summer, but it also allows for one last pluck, thus making the effort of pruning later less arduous. (Or so I’d guess.)

Unfortunately, many consider autumn flush teas to be inferior, uniform, or lackluster. I’ve gone on record before declaring that not to be case, and this is particularly evident in Darjeeling. In fact, a true character of a garden sometimes shows through with what’s offered in autumn. And I was given such an opportunity again by one such garden.

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A Long-Awaited Look at Latumoni

Throughout 2018, there was one name I could not escape.

Latumoni.

It was the name given to a village in Northeastern Assam, situated in the uppermost part of the Dibrugarh district. It was apparently so remote; it didn’t even show up as a physical location on Google Maps. (At least, not in English.) Stranger still, trying to find a definition to the name “Latumoni” proved equally as nebulous. This Wikipedia entry for a tree kept popping up.

After double-checking with someone, I learned that—indeed—the Assamese name for that tree was “Latumoni”. Abrus precatorius (the science-y name for it) used to grow plentifully in the region, and the red seed pods were often used in decorations. How it became the name of the village proper is anyone’s guess.

What’s this all have to do with tea? I’m getting to that.

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Tea Musings about 2018

2018 was a weird year. Yeah, I know I’ve said that about prior years, but I really mean it this time. At present, it’s midnight on New Year’s Eve, a “chill-hop” station is on repeat-play, and I’m waiting for this 2013 Myanmar shou cha to kick in.

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