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.
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.
Throughout 2018, there was one name I could not escape.
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.
In November of 2012, I accidentally “created” a smoked Darjeeling.
I say “accidentally” and put arbitrary air-quotes over “created” because . . . that’s only kinda what happened. One fateful day, I put a sample of Risheehat first flush—enclosed in a do-it-yourself tea bag—into a tin of loose Lapsang Souchong. Totally not thinking of the consequences. A week or so later, I broke out the sample, brewed it up, and marveled at the light-but-lingering “campfire embers” taste.
That made me wonder if and when someone in Darjeeling proper would (or could) ever smoke a Darjeeling like that. Several years later, in the summer of 2016, I saw this. Tony Gebely from World of Tea posted a picture of a first flush Darjeeling . . . that had been smoked over oak.
Image owned by Tony Gebely.
My jaw dropped. Apparently, it hailed from an “estate” called Niroula.
Ruan Zhi—or “soft stem”— is a particular cultivated variety (or cultivar) of tea plant originally hailing from China, before making its way to Taiwan, and then migrating further along to Thailand and Myanmar . . . I think?
I say “I think?” because, well, information is not all that clear about the cultivar’s origins. As a result, I’m going to have to approach this write-up in reverse. That being: focusing on teas that were made from said cultivar once it made its way to Thailand, and even as far away as Myanmar. After that . . . I’ll attempt to elaborate upon the soft-stemmed tea bush’s checkered past.
Gopaldhara is a tea estate in the Mirik Valley in the Darjeeling district of the Indian state West Bengal. Like many such tea estates in the region, it began its life in the late 19th century. Plotted and planted by a bunch o’ Brits.
Image owned by Gopaldhara.
It derives its name from the original owner of the land, prior to tea planting—someone named “Gopal”—and the existence of natural streams that wound along the landscape; colloquially known in the old Lepcha language as “dharas”. Hence the name, Gopaldhara.
Glen and Lamu of Crimson Lotus Tea are one of my favorite husband-‘n-wife puerh hunter duos.
Up until 2016, I only knew of them, and the good reputation they’d garnered over five years as trustworthy sellers of Yunnan’s favorite export. However, over the last couple of years, I developed a bit of a quixotic, after-hours correspondence with the Glen half of the team. During the spring and early summer months—while they were on one of their annual sourcing trips—I’d occasionally hear from him (or vice-versa) . . . at 2AM.
In one such conversation, he casually mentioned they’d been invited to tour an old growth tea forest few Westerners had ever seen. He immediately had my attention; the words “secret tea garden” scrawled into my brain. A week-or-so-ish after that conversation, they posted this video on their YouTube channel.
Tie Guan Yin is one of the most interesting takes on oolong ever developed. Despite its ancient-sounding name—invoking the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Guan Yin— the “Iron Goddess of Mercy” only dates back to the 19th century. Hailing from Anxi county, in Fujian province, China, this complicated style of oolong originally began its life as a medium-roast, “strip leaf”-shaped incarnation; similar to Wuyi Mountain yanchas, or Phoenix Mountain Dan Congs—only nowhere near as dark. That changed around the turn of the 20th century when the processing techniques grew even more labyrinthine.
Image mooched from Wikipedia.
Contrary to popular belief, though, Tie Guan Yin didn’t start out as a processing style of oolong. Rather, the style was inspired by a slow-growing, low-yielding cultivar of the same name.
Sometime in early spring, my tea-centric social media feed blew up with images of this:
Image owned by the Tea Studio.
My first thought was, Wow, that is one SWEET mansion!
A modern-looking building, decked out with many windows allowing for natural light, smack-dab in the middle of a tea garden? It was as if someone drilled into my brain and pulled out the ideal image of the sweetest tea blogger bachelor pad, ever. But why was it showing up in my feed(s)?
As it turns out, it wasn’t a residence, but rather a factory—dubbed the Tea Studio.
Of all the states in India, Arunachal Pradesh is one of the most mysterious and mystical.
I’m not exaggerating. A cursory research glance turned up nothing concrete in regards to an agreed-upon “history” prior to the 1900s. The rest is conjecture, subjective, and vague—depending on who is relating the info. Even the official border between the state and Chinese territory (principally, Tibet) is a subject of considerable dispute. The territory didn’t even receive official statehood until 1987.
What I can say concretely is that the state is one of the most biodiverse and intriguing in Northeastern India. 77% of its landmass is covered in forest, and much of that falls under national park or protected status. The region is also fairly mountainous, which isn’t much of a surprise . . . because . . . Himalayas and all. Arunachal Pradesh, roughly translated from Hindi, means: “land of the dawn-lit mountains”.
My fascination with the region grew over the last year or so when I learned there were tea gardens there. However, they were spotty, large, few and far between, difficult to get to and—based upon a few inquiries— said teas were hard to obtain outside of India proper. That and some fetched a high price tag. I knew of a couple of exporting vendors that carried teas from Arunachal Pradesh gardens, but they seemed reluctant to part with samples.
Then along came a mysterious benefactor who provided me with a couple of teas from that mysterious Indian state. The company that carried said teas? Upton Tea Imports.
They’d been on my radar for years, due to their extensive and varied orthodox product catalog. So diverse were there wares, that their website even had a drop-down menu to explore teas by region. Granted, they weren’t the only tea vendors that did that, but few cast a sourcing net so wide.
The two teas were a black tea—hailing from a garden called Donyi Polo—and a white tea from a garden called Mouling. As far as I can tell, Donyi Polo derives its name from the collective designation given to native spiritual and religious practices in the region. I even found videos on YouTube about the garden.
Mouling was a different, and more fascinating story. It was a 30-hectare, family-owned garden that’d been growing tea since 1992. Of all of their teas, their white tea was the most renowned. By chance, I happened across an article on The Velvet Rocket of a visit to said garden.
Click the picture to read that. I’ll wait.
Image owned by Justin Ames and The Velvet Rocket.
Back? Great. Fascinating, eh?
I received both single estate teas in May, and dipped into them shortly after receiving the package.
Upton Tea Imports recommended brewing the white tea for three minutes in 190F water, and the black tea for five minutes in 212F water. I was able to obey the white tea recommendation to the letter, but I made a major error in brewing judgement with the black tea. In the preparation, I set the timer wrong, and accidentally brewed the black up for six minutes instead of five. I hoped it turned out okay. (Fingers crossed.)
The leaves looked typical for a black tea from India. Brown, broken leaf pieces amidst some golden tips. The cuts ranged from small to medium. What was suprising was the smell. It was very hard to pinpoint; both Himalayan spicy, yet Assamese malty. And there was a zesty, first flush florality to the scent as well.
At first, I thought, given the appearance of the decanting in progress, that the brew would be light. However, when I poured it over into a small cup, I realized that the liquor colored to a deep amber—bordering on Assam copper. The steam aroma was all . . . malted muscatel grapes and whatever the color “red” tastes like. Speaking of taste: the intro reminded me of a Darjeeling second flush, but malt took over the Himalayan muscatel bits in a deluge towards the middle. Throughout, there was a bit of tannic bite, but not so dry as to become overwhelming. The unspuspecting caffeinated wallop that followed on the last sip went straight to my head.
On first impression, this didn’t look like a white tea at all. In fact, it looked like a typical Nepalese or Bengali first flush OP “black tea” on initial glance. Like the black tea, it was the smell that gave away signs of its process, and a few other confusing things to boot. Some of the melon and sage notes (of most white teas) were there, but added to that was a gentle earthiness. Like the scent transitioned to velvetine moss in my nose.
The liquor brewed up yellow gold with an aroma that hit me on first pour. Stone fruit fragrance wafted from the cup almost immediately. Both welcoming and surprising. White teas were supposed to be subtle; this wasn’t. The taste echoed that lack of subtlety with a flower-shaped-battering-ram flavor. It introduced itself with great fanfare on first sip. The intro was floral, slightly herbaceous, but then the fruit lean pushed its way through the crowd of nuances, and stayed ’til the aftertaste cued in.
Having finally experienced the enigmatic flavor nuances of Arunachal Pradesh, I’m itching to explore the region further. Time will likely provide me with such opportunities, but whatever those gardens are doing, they can keep on doing it. I’ve noticed that the Indian northeastern states have the most flavorful terroirs in the country.
Perhaps it has something to do with old growth tea tree forests along the borders?
I dunno . . . that’s another mystery for another time.