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Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

The Fairhope Tea Plantation

As I’ve said many times, it often takes a mere photograph to grab my attention, and to remind me of something I’ve neglected. For instace, this one.

Image owned by One Man’s Tea Journey

This was posted in August by blogger compatriot (and all-around great guy) Eric of One Man’s Tea Journey.  In the spring of 2019, he paid a visit to two US-based tea gardens—one in Alabama and one in Mississippi—and recorded the experience for posterity. I have no good excuse for this; somehow this article slipped my notice. His photographic reminder, however, didn’t. I voiced my envy.

His unexpected response to my textual salivation was to . . . send me two teas grown in Alabama. (Pretty sure he was already aware that I had sampled the heck out of the Mississippi tea garden.) That was not a response I had expected, nor was it one I was too gracious to refuse. Although, I did offer to send something in return, and that offer still stands; just so we’re clear.

The Fairhope Tea Plantation is located (obviously) in Fairhope, Alabama. Quick’n dirty version: the garden was founded in 1979 from the remnants of an old Lipton test plot. From three plants that survived a haphazard bonfire, horticulturalist Donnie Barrett started a tea garden that would later expand to 61,000 plants of various cultivars. He experimented with making his own tea in 1984 after a visit to China, and pretty much had to learn everything from scratch.

If you want to read the plantation’s full story, go HERE.

The Age of Honey Orchid

If there’s one kind of oolong that has the most fantastical origin story, it’s Dan Cong. A name that translates as “single bush or tree”. The story of this tea has its roots in the last days of the Southern Song dynasty. Around 1279 C.E., Zhao Bing (or Song Di Bing)—the final child emperor—had fled from Mongols with his entourage to the Fenghuang (Phoenix Mountain) region of, what is now, Guangdong Province.

 

As legend has it, the local tea farmers fed the young emperor tea leaves as he wandered the countryside. These bushes were a hybrid off-shoot of Shui Xian, a known cultivated [likely] hailing from Wuyi Shan, all the way to the northeast. Allegedly, leaves revitalized the young emperor, staving off his exhaustion from the exile. Alas, the Mongols eventually did catch up to him, and he—and his guardian—jumped off a cliff.

Afterwards, the tea trees in the region—that hadn’t been delineated as cultivar specific—took on a new name; Song Zhong, further emphasizing its connection to the late Southern Song emperor. Hundreds of years after that, further refinement of tea processing in the region occurred. Aside from growing Song Zhong from seed, Fenghuang farmers also developed cultivated varieties based upon difference leaf fragrances. By isolating these, they bred from grafts to further duplicate those aromatic profiles.

In the late 1700s, Dan Cong was officially listed as an imperial tribute tea, and the Fenghuang region its forebears. If it wasn’t from the Phoenix Mountain, it wasn’t Dan Cong. To this day, that’s still the case. As to how many “fragrance cultivar” sub-categories there are? I . . . have no idea. But there’s one I see more than any other, probably because it’s the most ubiquitous.

Mi Lan Xiang (“Honey Orchid Fragrance”) Dan Cong.

Why I Talk About Indian Teas . . . A Lot

There’s a question I always get from fellow tea heads, and it’s one that has increased in frequency over the last couple of years: “So, what’s the deal with Indian teas?” Or some permutation of that. I’m not sure when it happened, but I became known (peripherally) in a few tea circles as the “Indian tea guy”. Which is weird considering . . . I’m nowhere close to being Indian. I’ve never even been to the country.

However, one thing I’ve noticed over the last ten years, amidst my muscatel-fueled echo chamber, people gravitated more prominently to Taiwanese oolongs, Wuyi oolongs, or—more infamously—to puerh collectorship. And yet, while I flirted with all types of tea, I always returned to my Himalayan palatial home. What’s funny is, I’ve never fully addressed why.

But then something triggered me to finally to so. Or rather, some drink.

Caffeine and Crassicolumna

In late 2018, various media outlets were all a-buzz about a new (old) discovery.

An as-of-yet uncategorized decaffeinated tea plant in Fujian province, China. Some of the articles exaggerated the claim; others got some of the science wrong completely. Put succinctly: a long-forgotten cultivar had mutated. How does that happen?

Well, as most tea botany nerds know, cultivars are only classified as such if the genetic info is uniform. Meaning: cultivated varieties of certain tea plants could only be called as such if they’re grown from clones or grafts from other members of that cultivar. If grown from seed, the genetic profile of that tea tree changes.

Well, the decaf tree—dubbed Hong Ya Cha—was one such genetic variant. And I couldn’t stop talking about it. Why? Well, my relationship with caffeine was in flux, and I looked for any tea-adjacent alternatives I could find.

In a real-life conversation with other tea blog friends, I brought the subject up. (Mainly curious if anyone sold any teas made from Hong Ya Cha.) One of them mentioned Verdant Tea as a possible source. I went to digging.

Turns out what they had was a completely different thing, entirely. Oh, they possessed “teas” that were made from a supposedly decaffeinated plant. But it wasn’t from a mutated Camellia sinensis tree. No, theirs was from a cousinly species from Yunnan province, China. Camellia crassicolumna.

The Legend of Ivan Chai

A couple of years ago, I tried a unique herbal “tea” from Latvia.

It was called “Rosebay Willowherb”. The sample was sent to me by a now-defunct company, and what intrigued me most was the processing method. While the purple flowers of the plant were dried in the typical tisane manner, the leaves were almost fully oxidized—like a black tea.

“I Don’t Want the Game to End.”

Like many with nerdlinger tendencies, I was camped in front of my computer to catch this:

The first episode of Star Trek: Picard.

It was roughly 10PM on a Thursday, and I resisted for all of ten seconds before purchasing a subscription to CBS All Access. All for the sake of nostalgia. I even brewed up some Stash Double Bergamot Earl Grey for the occasion. Decaf. (It was late, and I’m too old for caffeine at night.)

Virginia’s First Tea Farm

When you’re a tea nerd like me, sometimes the best way to find new discoveries is just to camp out on social media and . . . lurk. Facebook is the perfect place for this totally-not-creepy behavior because of the myriad of tea groups out there. Even some specifically geared toward the practice of tea growing. A lot of my knowledge about tea growers in the United States came from such [totally normal!] lurking perusal. Such as this series of photos posted by a grower local to me, David Hathaway:

Image owned by David Hathaway.

Apparently, there was a tea farm in Virginia, and it completely escaped my notice.

Steeped in Selah

2019 was a very weird year for tea.

Or rather, a very weird year for how tea was covered in the press. And by “press”, I mean, mainstream media, not the usual tea or beverage-centric haunts that won’t hire me that cover tea. I’m talking about The New York Times and Thrillist, just to name the most prominent.

Sipping Mississippi

I waited way too long to tell this story. So long, in fact, others have already told it. Because of that, I have to approach this from another angle—a sipping angle.

Image owned by The Great Mississippi Tea Company.

The Great Mississippi Tea Company first popped up on my radar in the spring (or was it summer?) of 2012. Where? On this here Tea Trade network. A new user—Jason McDonald—announced he and his business partner (Timothy Gipson) had just broken ground on a new tea farm.

Autumnal Assam Experiments

Image owned by Tea Leaf Theory.

In January of 2019, I wrote about this garden.

Latumoni.

It was a 7-acre garden that bore the name of the small Assamese village it hugged against. Throughout 2018, their name was everywhere. Mainly because of their partner—and research station founder—Tea Leaf Theory. Through this operation’s efforts, and Latumoni’s care and hard work, the garden became a bit of a household name in some tea circles. If only for pushing the mission statement about the potential of small gardens in Assam.

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