Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

Tag: Darjeeling Page 2 of 3

A Sidrapong Heritage Story

The Arya tea estate has a fascinating history, even among the many that dot the Darjeeling region, especially because of its original name – Sidrapong.

Arya, formerly Sidrapong

According to legend, the original site was home to Buddhist monks on an unknown pilgrimage in the mid-to-late 1700s. They were looking for a place to build a new monastery and somehow ended up in Darjeeling. The monks, then, planted a garden with various Chinese seeds and dubbed it “Sidrapong”. To date, I have yet to come up with an exact translation for this. And believe me, I looked. The nearest thing I could find, after consulting several sources, was a claim that it meant “house on fire” in the old Lepcha language.

Eventually, the garden was renamed “Arya” – a Sanskrit word meaning “noble” or “respected”. In 1885, it was transformed into a tea garden, presumably by the British. Over ten years later, the garden became home to a new tenant – a technological one.

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A Crappy Christmas Cat Poem with a Cuppa Tea

T’was the day before Christmas Eve,

And all was quite spiffy.

I stayed in my PJs all day –

In neither a hurry nor jiffy.

 

I babysat two cats,

Made sure they were fed.

Never overstayed my welcome,

For they both wished me dead.

 

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Getting Tea Drunk on Giddapahar

NaNoTeaMo, Day 21: “Getting Tea Drunk on Giddapahar”

The Giddapahar tea estate rests near the center of the Kurseong Valley. The name translates to “Eagle’s Cliff”. While still considered high altitude in most respects, it represents one of the lower altitude gardens in that region. One of the most unique aspects of the estate is its size. Compared to many other Darjeeling ops, it’s rather small – 110 hectares total, 90% of which are covered in tea plants. Most of the bushes they use are small leaf Chinese cultivars.

Giddapahar

Luckily, the garden had a website for me to look all this up. How many tea estates actually have a website? Not many, I’ve found – unless they’re huge. Granted, the site needs a lot of work. It was apparently made in 2013, but looks like it was rendered in 2003. Plus, there’s weird New Age music playing in the background. It’s eerily soothing. Those nitpicks aside, though, “A” for effort.

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Darjeeling Fit for an Emperor

NaNoTeaMo, Day 16: “Darjeeling Tea Fit for an Emperor”

The Singbulli tea estate has a very old history, like a lot of such Darjeeling gardens. It was established in 1924 by British planters, and then was taken over in 2003 by Jayshree Tea and Industries. The garden resides near the town of Mirik, and teas from there are certified organic.

The name “Singbulli” means “home of the birds”, but when I first heard the name several years ago, I immediately pictured this.

singing bull

But let’s stay focused here.

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What Makes a Moonlight Tea?

What makes a tea a “Moonlight” tea?

It’s a question I’ve asked myself several times over the last six years, and the one answer I’ve always returned to is, “I don’t care as long as it tastes good. “ But perhaps that was foolhardy. I originally assumed that when the name “Moonlight” was applied to a tea – particularly those from China – it was just for the namesake. Yunnan province’s Moonlight is called so because . . . well . . . that is the name. “Yue Guang Bai” translates to “Moonlight White”. Sure, it was also considered a style of white tea, but one that was only regionally specific. Because of this, I also thought that the same was true for Darjeeling.

I can name at least seven Darjeeling teas that have “moon” in their names. Glenburn Moonshine, Arya Moonbeam, Thurbo Moonlight, and – my favorite – Castleton Moonlight, to name just a few. Then a tea luminary I admired, Rajiv Lochan, blew my mind when he gave me this little tidbit of information. Moonlight wasn’t just a name for these Darjeeling teas; it was also a technique!

mind blown

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A Castleton Comparison

While this has easily been the worst summer of my life, there was an anniversary of sorts. One I had completely forgotten about until I received an e-mail from Vivek Lochan of Lochan Tea. It read: “In continuing with tradition, a sample of the 2015 Castelton Moonlight has been sent to you yesterday by courier.”

Whoah! I thought. Just a few days prior, I’d wondered how I was going to acquire some of that tea this year. For those that don’t know, Castleton Moonlight, second flush, is my absolute favorite tea. Of all time. I first fell in love with it in 2011. And I’ve made it a point to get a hold of it every year since. It’s an oolong from the Darjeeling tea estate dubbed Castleton. I did a full write-up on my history with that tea for the Lochans, which can be found HERE.

If I did get a hold of it, that would mark my fifth anniversary with said tea.

They were curious how this year’s stacked up against last year’s offering. And, truth be told, I was morbidly curious as well. Teas and tea types tend to growing season to growing season. Influences like weather, processing, and quality of the terroir all play a part, and all factors are never completely consistent year-to-year. From what I heard, Darjeeling second flush teas had a late start this year due to weather conditions.

I received the package a week later, and immediately tore into it. Keep in mind, this was at 6PM. Well beyond my usual “black tea” hour.

Moonlight loose

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The Dog Days of Summer, Sipping Darjeeling

Over the course of the Summer, I was occasionally called upon by my brother and his wife to watch this li’l guy.

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Why does he have a cone on? I’ll get to that…

Bro and sis-in-law were called away this time to take on the wilds of Canada with her family. I housesat and dog-sat in the interim. The first couple of days saw the dog and I getting used to each other, as is often the case. The galoot would test the boundaries (and my patience), and I would develop a routine around his quixotic, Bernardian behavior.

The wrinkle this time around was his butt. No really.

Before the bro-fam left for Canada, a flea had bitten him, and said hindquarters itched profusely. He would do what any dog did – bite the ever-loving hell out of it. Unfortunately, being a dog, he didn’t know when to stop. Hence…cone.

For the house/dog-sitting week, I only brought a few teas to subsist on. One of these was Norbu Tea’s Thurbo Oriental Moon, First Flush, 2014. I had plenty of it, and I figured it would do the trick. If it didn’t, I brought back-ups.

Short version: I never had to rely on the back-ups.

The leaves were like that of first flushes I’d seen before, but what surprised me more was how tippy the leafy bouquet was.

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Seriously, like, every other piece was a tip varying amounts of downy fuzz present. Usually, such a thing is only present on Darjeeling oolongs, but I wasn’t complaining. The dry aroma was nutty, slightly citrusy, and – of course – herbaceous by any good first flush standards.

Brewing was easy enough. 1 teaspoon, 6oz. steeper cup, hot water, three-minute steep…and done. Yet I still observed a bit of care when brewing – making sure I didn’t over-brew. Some Darjeelings didn’t take to that well.

The liquor brewed to a green tea-ish pale gold with an aroma of grapes and nuts.

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I swear, Darjeelings this year have had the grapiest aromas compared to prior ones. Not muscatel wine grapes, just straight grapes. This was one of the sweeter ones on fragrance alone. Taste-wise, there was a creamy introduction, followed by something akin to…blueberries(???)…and a finish akin to a dry Riesling. Of all the first flushes I’ve tried thus far this year, I think this was the best.

No wonder I lived on it.

Over the course of the week, I brewed it hot in the mornings before work and got the dog fed. After work, I brewed the same leaves iced prior to a dog walk.

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It held up just as sweetly in a pint glass on the rocks.

The owners came home to a happy dog-sitter and a slightly spoiled brat of a Saint Bernard.

I’m not sure why I always turn to Darjeeling every time I watch that dog. Heck, this is the second (or third?) blog I’ve written on the subject. But, hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Or just put a cone on it.

Dating, Darjeeling, and Drought

This might come as a big shock to a lot of you, but I don’t do a lot of dating.

 

For the record, it’s mostly my fault. I don’t put much effort into looking, and I’m in no real hurry to start. That and I’m perpetually broke, I don’t take wonderful care of myself, nor do I cultivate a personality oozing of confidence. And – like my tea palate – I’m insanely picky. That said, a drought is still a drought.

If one were reaching, they could even compare it to the recent scourge of waterlessness that struck Darjeeling earlier this year. According to this article posted by Happy Earth Tea, areas of Darjeeling saw their usual yields cut in half by the absence of rainfall. Darjeeling East fared better than most, but a lot of tea estates in the region saw their production cut significantly by the chronically dry weather. The result? Less Darjeeling to go around at a far higher price.

I even saw many a Darjeeling estate director express “water from their eyes” at the lack of “water from the skies”.

Poetic, really. Darjeeling wasn’t alone. Assam saw a similar lack of precipitation, as did my beloved Doke Estate in Bihar. Plans for certain teas were altogether discarded from many due to the lack of leaf abundance.

As a result, I wasn’t expecting to see any of this year’s Darjeeling yields pass by my cup. After 2013’s underwhelming second flushes, I wasn’t too disappointed. Oh, how wrong I was.

In the span of a week after reading that article, Happy Earth Tea informed me that 2014 First Flush samples were heading toward me. As far as Darjeelings went, first flushes were typically my favorite. However, I was expecting more of the same from this year’s batch – spice, faint muscatel notes and nuts. Again…I was wrong. Twice in row.

I already did TeaCuplets for Happy Earth’s Singbulli and Arya Ruby first flushes, respectively. Not only was I blown away, but I actually had to say that these were the best first flushes I ever had. Even better than my favorite year – 2011.

So, what does this have to do with dating, and why did I deem it necessary to do a blog on two disparate subject matters? I’m getting to that. Chill, dudes/dudettes.

This last week, I was moving on to my third Darjeeling in the new Happy Earth Tea retinue – their 2014 Puttabong.

 

This was a tea estate I had no strong feelings about. I’d had teas from their I liked, and others that I didn’t care for as much. So far, my palate was “take-it/leave-it”. Although, I always giggled when I heard the name. Kinda reminded me of a certain bit of drug paraphernalia.

(Note: No, I was not going to post a picture of a bong.)

The first time I brewed it up, I wasn’t paying too much attention to technique. I over-boiled some water, prepped two scoops of leaves, dumped them in a strainer, poured water into a travel mug, guesstimated three-ish minutes, then left for work. As I drank it on my drive, something tasted…off. I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Sure, the nuts and spices were there in the taste, but there was also a great deal of astringency. As the water cooled down, that chalk-like feeling on the tongue grew stronger. There was only one conclusion I could come to: I had over-brewed it. Damn, that was a bad omen. A bad first cup of tea meant a bad rest-of-the-day.

As I stepped through the door, though…something magical happened.

 

Between two departmental managers was a woman I hadn’t seen before. She was tall, slender (in a willowy sort of way) with shoulder-length curly brown hair. She had an ivory complexion, a cute button nose, and medium-to-full lips. It was like she’d stepped off of a Jane Austen novel jacket. The assistant manager had told me they’d recently hired someone who was a British ex-pat, but nothing prepared me for this.

She introduced herself; I returned the favor – albeit clumsily. Then I went off to start my tasks. All the while humming songs from Disney’s Robin Hood for some reason. Okay, I knew the reason. Her original home just happened to be a place made popular by Robin Hood lore. That’s all I’m going to say on the subject.

 

A few hours later, as I was in the middle of cleaning a toilet (yes, I do that)…she approached me.

“I hear you’re a tea drinker,” she said with grace, “I would love to talk to you about that some time.”

“Oh yes, quite into it,” I said, still scrubbing the rim of the bowl. “The first flush Darjeelings are great this year.”

She laughed. It was the greatest sound in the world at that moment.

“Oh wow!” she exclaimed, seemingly impressed. “You’re really into it.”

“Uh-yep.” I said shortly. Then went back to scrubbing. Yep, still got it, I said to myself sarcastically.

Later on, I worked up the nerve to talk to her again, after she waved and smiled at me.

“So…” I had no idea how to ‘open’, so I went with, “What was in your cup this morning?”

“Oh, I had an iced coffee.”

My heart sank.

It was never meant to be.

I went home and revisited that ol’ Puttabong sample. I still possessed the spent leaves from the earlier brew. This time, I took more care in the brewing – three-minute steep. The results were…pure palatial poetry.

 

I tasted straight grapes. No, not a hint of muscatel…or whatever crap taster notes people associate with Darjeelings. Far bolder than that. This was transcendent of wine grapes – it was sweet, kind, welcoming, warm – kind of like the laughter of…oh…

And then I understood.

Like with the Puttabong, my first impression of British Girl was one of high expectations and fantasies. It wasn’t until a second impression that those unrealistic notions were completely dispelled and surpassed! Sure, my palate is picky, but it also admits when it’s wrong. After all, there was a time when I didn’t even like Darjeelings – sad but true.

The next day, British Girl and I had a few tasks to work on together. We talked, she laughed at my dumb jokes, and her smile always lingered just a bit longer than necessary. I could’ve listened to her laugh all day. When my shift ended, I even stuck around for an extra ten minutes just to hear her talk some more.

Eventually, I did pry myself away from work and return home. A couple of hours in, I brewed up some more Puttabong. It was like a fond, lingering smile in my cup.

Perhaps the drought has ended.

Journeys to Jungpana

The Darjeeling tea estate of Jungpana has a unique history for its name. According to Norbu Tea Company, there are two possible origin stories. One Norbu Greg heard from the locals states that the name is an alteration of the Farsi word “Jahanpanah”, which means “Shelter of the World” – in reference to how the estate resembles a palace on a hill. The other posits that the name was a blending of “Jung” (the name of a Gurkha guide who got mauled to death) and “Pani” – the Nepali word for “water”.

I like to think it’s a combination of the two – the name given to a brave Gurkha who fended off rabid tea-thieving werewolves atop a hill. That’s how I’d want to go. Where was I going with this?

Oh yes, Jungpana.

Jungpana

Image Owned by Vanessa Sly

Until last June, I’d never even heard of the estate. And in less than seven months’ time, it has become one of my favorites. My first exposure to it occurred at World Tea Expo. Yes, yes, I know I keep talking about that damn event. How was I to know it would influence umpteen origin stories months later?! Stop complaining or I’ll…uh…Gurkha you. In the face. With water.

Anyway…my first exposure was at a tasting event on my second day of the Expo. Perennial Nice Guy – Rajiv Lochan of Lochan Tea – was in attendance, and he brought with him a first flush Darjeeling for the tasting. It was an OP from the Jungpana estate. I don’t recall any other details about it other than the fact that it made mine and Robert “The Devotea” Godden’s eyes glaze over in delight.

I wish I had more information beyond the crinkled, felt-writ foil bag still in my possession.

sample bag

I have barely two servings left of the stuff, and – for the longest time – I thought those vestiges would be the last of that estate I’d experience all year. Boy, how wrong I was!

Among many other samples, I received – not one but two! – teas from said estate, courtesy of Norbu Tea Company. One was a second flush OP dubbed “Muscatel” (fitting), and the other was a uniquely pan-fired green simply called “Yellow”. Just what I needed, more yellow-named teas to confuse my palate.

Well, I’m glad they did.

Jungpana teas

Jungpana Yellow (Left). Jungpana Muscatel (Right).

The Jungpana Muscatel’s infusion yielded a pleasantly…well…muscatel and floral cup with a citrus feel on the back. Never thought I’d say it, but this is a Darjeeling second flush that begs to have a pre-wash to allow the leaves to open up. Thirty seconds, tops. For some reason, more exhilarating flavor notes emerged from that. Not sure how to properly convey it.

The Jungpana Yellow on the other hand…holy Gurkha guide water!

The liquor brewed bright green with a fruity aroma. What fruit, eh, I dunno – something mildly citrusy. On taste, I can’t describe how pleasant this was. The forefront was tropical, the middle possessed the wine-like characteristics of a Long Jing, and spice appeared on the trail-off. No grass, no spinach, none of those negative green tea traits. It was green tea perfection.

No wonder this sucker won an award.

(No, seriously, it won an award.)

award

After that dual tasting, I looked at the bags and said, “Okay, Jungpana, I get it. You’re awesome. You’ve made your point.”

Oh, but it wasn’t done with me, yet.

Last Sunday, I ventured out to Stash Tea’s new store and tea bar in North Portland with my brother and his wife.

We planned a trip, since none of us had been yet. It was a lot like their Tigard retail space, but with a slight Teavana-ish lean (minus the upselling). That and the employees were nice – like, really nice. Genuinely friendly tea people from a large chain, what a concept!

Stash Tea Bar

I also appreciated the layout of the store. Once someone entered, the bar was on the right, loose-leaf single origin teas were on the left, and the bagged teas were toward the back. As they should be.

Unfortunately, they only had a limited selection of canisters one could choose from for sampling at the bar. Most of the bar-ready teas on display were of the flavored variety. Not that I was surprised. It was Stash, after all. They catered to the general tea drinker, and that was decidedly not me.

Then I saw it. At the front of the black tea line – even ahead of the Earl Greys – was a giant tin with a label that made my jaw drop and my lips moisten: “Darjeeling Jungpana”.

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I ordered a 12oz. glass of it immediately. So exclusive was this tea, that it wasn’t even available on their website. (Trust me, I looked.) It was…oh my omnomgharblemummerssss….

It wasn’t quite as perfect as the Jungpana Yellow…but still way up there.

As my brother and his wife looked around, I chose a spot by the window – gingerly sipping and watching traffic go by. Both of them joined soon after – my brother had ordered a Chai Latte, his bride cupped some Mangosteen Green. My younger sibling let me sip his masala chai, and I let him try mine.

“Whoo!” he exclaimed. “That’s primo!”

“I know!” I replied.

He feigned a pout. “I like that almost better than mine.”

And we wasted the late-afternoon, cupping away like gentleman hunters waiting for their Gurkha guide.

Shelter of the World, indeed.

Brothers Norman

Photo by “Critter”

The Moonlight of 2013

Earlier today, I finally clicked on my “2013: Year in Review” thingy on Facebook.

2013 review

For those not on the accursed social media site – all two of you in Zambia – at the end of the year, your most frequented status updates are compiled logarithmically. The Top 20 are listed in order, giving the user a basic rundown of their highlights for that year.

If my Top 20 is to be believed, the only things I accomplished in 2013 are: (1) Drinking beer. (2) Watching Doctor Who. (3) Commenting on my brother’s wedding. (4) Posting a picture of myself from when I was a teenager.

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Yes, I’m aware I looked like an extra from Saved by the Bell. It was the 90s, after all.

The thing I found unsettling, though, wasn’t the fact that I’d accomplished so very little over the last year as a human being. I was quite aware of that. Writing projects went unfinished. My station in life had not improved at all. (If anything, it got worse.) But there was one key factor that was missing; one thing that made the year – despite my lack of evolution – the best of my life.

Where the f**k was all the tea?!

Sure, my life hadn’t changed much, but as a tea writer, everything changed. I attended my first World Tea Expo. I went to – not one but two – tea gardens over the summer. I met just about every tea blogger in my social media circle in person, save for a precious few. I attended a teabeer fest. And – last but certainly not least – I met The Devotea. (He’d kill me if he didn’t at least get his own sentence.)

How had Facebook forgotten all of that?! And why weren’t they higher on the list? I know for a fact more than one tea status update was just as popular or frequented as…Doctor Friggin’ Who!!!

Tardis Teapot

Image owned by ThinkGeek

Then I promptly had a cup of tea and calmed down. I reflected on the year that was, and on the present. The last couple of months of 2013 were a might depressing. Financial woes were looming overhead. Job hours were being cut – again. And prospects for the future were…nonexistent at best.

Yet still, 2013 was the best year of my life. How could I express that in a few words? I know…

I would reflect upon the best tea I had all year – a new incarnation on an old favorite.

Thanks to Norbu Tea Company, I was able to get a hold of this last year’s Castleton estate second flush oolong dubbed “Moonlight”. The first time I ever had this tea was in 2011, and it just about made my brain melt. Same thing happened in 2012. (And that was a really s**ty year.) How about the 2013?

Moonlight Luckily, I still had some of the 2012 from Thunderbolt Tea for comparison’s sake. The two like-named teas smelled like what I expected – awesomeness. Floral, zesty, muscatel, with an herbaceous finish. The 2013, however, had a nuttier profile. Both had a menagerie of colored leaves on display, ranging from browns, to greens, to downy-furred tips. The 2013, however, had more fur-tipped pieces.

The 2012 liquor brewed up darker bronze than the 2013. The taste was – well – pure, unadulterated heaven. All the sensations I got from the aroma and more. I could try to narrow it down, but I’m still fuzzy…and basking.

The 2013 possessed many of the traits as the 2012…but with one added caveat. There was a presence of chocolate-covered almonds in the flavor. In this regard, it lost most of its oolong-y comparison, but added a dimension that was definitely full-on orange pekoe.

Left: 2012. Right: 2013

Left: 2012. Right: 2013

How did they both measure up? It was like comparing two different interpretations of perfection. The latter year had a chocolate/malt/almond thing going that both added and changed the vote. The former was more fruity and floral. It was (and still is) a tough call. They evened out to identical palates upon further steepings. Yes, I said further steepings. Both lasted two more strong infusions before giving out – two Western-style infusions.

And I think that best sums up my opinion of 2013. In normal terms, it was just as “eh” as 2012, but nowhere near as tragic. I didn’t change much, but certain aspects were more transcendent. In short, it was more of the same, but my horizons were broadened. I committed more to my tea-ish leanings, and they rewarded me tenfold.

I guess this is the part where the writer offers a look at the year ahead – a hint of what’s in store. Resolutions, too, if ambitious. To tell you the truth, I have none…and I’ve made none. Well, not entirely the case. To borrow from a recent Devotea status update, my only resolution is to:

 

Image Owned by The Devotea

Image Owned by The Devotea

The rest will sort itself out.

As the best years of our lives often do.

2014

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