I think it’s high time I talk about the Castleton estate.
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!
Back in May – as all two of you readers may already know – I attended my third World Tea Expo. The Finest Brew’s booth was easily a tea blogger favorite. The company was run by two Sri Lankan borthers, and they possessed some weird things I’d never seen before. They had no problem showing off their weird wares to us.
Before leaving the Expo, they made it a point to gift me with two unique white teas. Both were made in the same style – that of Yue Guang Bai (Moonlight White), a white tea from Yunnan province, China. The kicker though? Only one of them was from Yunnan. Yiwu Mountain, to be precise.
The other was produced on a small plot of land on the New Vithanande tea estate in southern Sri Lanka (Ceylon).
What was even weirder; both teas were produced using the same cultivated variety of tea plant – a so-called “purple leaf” cultivar of assamica. The only differences between the two white teas was their terroir and age. The Yunnan-produced stuff was crafted in 2011, whereas the Sri Lankan batch was harvested in 2014. It was only a matter of time before I subject them both to a side-by-side . . . tea fight.
I had an epiphany last week…and I abhor it.
While in the middle of filing some tax papers at a temp agency gig, I was attempting to outline my CheatoWriMo project. Motivation was proving hard to muster. The idea of compiling and collating old blogs and stories seemed boring. An odd realization to come by while compiling and collating. If the prospect of preparing such a yarn didn’t appeal to me, how was it going to appeal to a reader? Then something hit me square in the brain – a surge of epic proportions.
It occurred to me that there were two novel ideas I had that I put on mothballs – one was called Brunch with Phantoms, the other was Love at Second Sight. Coupled with those was an idea from awhile back retelling the events from my blog – “The Sex Tea Saga” – in a fictitious manner. None of them had enough material in them to warrent their own novels. But together…
And with that revelation, my CheatoWriMo project became a lot harder. Instead of compiling and repurposing previously written material, I was now going to have to start from scratch. Oh, yippee. The “evolved”/new premise was thus:
Raymond Elkins is a 25-year-old recent college grad with a life he thought he wanted. Everything was going according to “plan”, until one evening the unthinkable happened. He botched his anniversary with his girlfriend…by not getting it up.
Distraught, the twentysomething consults friends, family and the Internet for suggestions. This eventually leads him to an unassuming leaf found in some male enhancement products – tea. What begins, at first, as a quest for better sex leads him down a surreal and magical road – one wrought with danger and daring-do.
He must dodge vengeful goddesses, succubi, snake-people, sentient birds and wizards bent on ending his accidental quest. And all he has to guide him are a talking cat, a low-rent psychic, an ill-tempered gnome, and an undead Scottish botanist. Where this journey may lead him, no one can know. But he just might find true love, a good cup of tea, and save the world while he’s at it.
Yeah, I know, it’s bats**t crazy, and starting it was like pulling teeth. I was actually beginning a legitimate NaNoWriMo novel now – albeit very delayed. It also didn’t help that there were distractions along the way. All tea-related.
Friday afternoon, a package was waiting for me when I returned from running errands. It was from Butiki Teas, and I muffled a squeal of delight as a courtesy to the neighbors. One particular tea in the fray demanded immediate attention – a Japanese pu-erh. You heard right, and – no – I didn’t know such a thing existed, either.
Apparently, those wacky Japanese in Shizuoka prefecture were playing around with new styles of fermented tea. I already knew of two, and even tried one last year (which I liked quite a bit). This was a different beast altogether. I can’t even fathom the process that created it. Appearance-wise, it looked like a typical Japanese kocha (black tea), but the aroma was far different – coffee, chestnuts, soy sauce, plums and…er, awesome?
According to the Butiki Teas bio, this was a tea that was fermented for two-to-three days – artificially – with/in a brown rice culture. In other words, a wacky Japanese take on the Menghai shou (or cooked) method of aging pu-erh. To be frank, this smelled a lot better than most cooked pu-erhs I’ve tried. Normally, I can’t stand the stuff. New teas, however? Totally my thing.
There was only one snag; I did not want to share this alone. So, I gave ol’ David of PDX Tea a shout and wondered if he wanted to partake as well. It didn’t take long to get an affirmative. That and he also had better brewing equipment for such an experiment than I did. We prepped it like the Butiki site recommended – 1.5 tsps., boiling water, four-minute wait.
I can’t even being to describe how this tasted. It was part barley, part coffee, part roasted oolong, part Korean black, and all delicious. It was probably one of the more unusual teas I’ve tried all year, and – boy – I’d had some doozies. The cocoa-ish aftertaste lasted well after the sip. A part of me wanted to acquire “moar!” just so I could age it myself for a few years. But, honestly, I don’t have that kind of patience.
Some pu-erh purists out there might be thinking that it can’t be called pu-erh if it doesn’t hail from Yunnan province, China. And they have a point. Technically, this would be a heicha, I suppose. I would call it “Japuerh”, but that sounds kinda racist.
The second tea-related distraction from my writing responsibilities was something I found out right after David and I finished copious amounts of oolong. His Alliance space and Charity Chalmers (of Chariteas fame) were hosting a Portland tea meet-up, and the emphasis was on aged teas. How could I not go?
Besides my own donations to the cause, highlights for my palate were a Yue Guang Bai white sheng pu-erh cake and a Bai Liang bamboo basket-woven pu-erh cake. Both were zesty, earthy, floral, winy and all around Entish. Yes, that’s a good thing. Mrs. Chariteas seemed to know her rare teas, and I made a mental note to visit her shop at some point in the near future.
Saturday, I finally got started on A Steep Story (the new title for the novel). Reliving some of those past, embarrassing events was mildly uncomfortable. Some say you aren’t writing anything worthwhile unless your soul bleeds. I’m not sure I buy that. I would hardly call what I put to paper Voltaire levels of excellence…but it’s a start.
While this is technically playing by NaNoWriMo rules (i.e. starting from scratch), there’s still a hint of CheatoWriMo as well. I didn’t get started until about nine days in, so I’m giving myself nine days in December to continue. Beyond, if I have to. I’ll be damned if I’m not going to do this Little Nemo-meets-Scott Pilgrim yarn justice.
Some weeks back, I got a message from my cousin. He made an outright demand for “ADVENTURE!” Yes, in all caps. At first, he had a hankering to go to the Oregon Coast, particularly a brewery (or two) we had stopped at before. I suggested something a little more approachable – an idea we’d discussed in passing, the Columbia Gorge. There was a brewery on the Washington side of the river we had yet to hit. He jumped on that idea like it was a trampoline.
Before leaving for parts un-sober, we grabbed burritos for lunch and did a quick run to Starbucks. My cuz happened to be the customer of the month at this place. They even had his picture framed, knew him by name, and cracked barbs with him like he was Norm from Cheers. So, both he and the baristas kinda looked at me funny when I only asked for hot water rather than tea or coffee. Like a true pretentious douche, I brought my own tea leaves in a do-it-yourself baggy. Worse still, I was all shifty about it.
Once we hit the highway – and I’d timed the coffee cup steep at three minutes (yes, I do that) – I took a sip of the contents. I’m not sure what happened, but I had a full-body euphoric reaction. It was like a lazy man’s outta body experience…’cept no one went anywhere.
My cousin looked over and said, “Jesus, man, you look like you had an orgasm.”
In a tea-ist – almost spiritual (and less messy) – sorta way, I did. The tea in question was a second flush Darjeeling that was sent to me by a Twitter friend in Darjeeling – one Benoy Thapa of Thunderbolt Tea. Who is he? Probably one of the nicest fellows I’ve ever e-met. That and the only motorcycle-riding, tea-field-diving, ponytail-donning, camera-weilding family man/tea vendor I’ve heard about. It was thanks to him that I was finally exposed to real Darjeeling tea in the first place – not just the dust found in teabags.
He sent me a peculiar tea from the Castleton tea estate. Said garden was named for a building in the neighboring city of Kurseong that looked like a castle. The fields were first planted in 1885 by a Brit named Dr. Charles Graham. At present, the estate is 70% British-owned and quite known for its Chinese varietals that produce a world-renowned second flush product.
The one I had in my possession – and the one that caused the full-bodied teagasm – was a different sort of offering. Unlike the other OPs produced, this was technically an oolong. I even asked my Thunderbolt contact what type it was and he confirmed it, saying that was the information he received from the current owner.
This was unlike any other second flush Darjeeling I’d encountered. Okay, I’ve said that on other occasions, but I really mean it this time! The leaves were the color of…um…forest? Yes, a veritable bouquet of colors you’d associate with that image – root brown, soil yellow, canopied tree green, and sun gold. I had a little trouble finding a comparison. Its anomalous aroma didn’t help, either. The scent brought feelings of fresh water streams, wild berries, lemons and honey. I know, this is sounding more metaphoric than olfactory; I’m sorry. This was difficult to pin down.
There weren’t any specific brewing instructions for this on the Thunderbolt site. Mr. Thapa – as mentioned above – said this was an oolong. Granted, during the trial sip, I went lowbrow with a coffee mug. This time, though, I figured the best way would be to give it a traditional oolong send-off. And I bought a new gaiwan for the occasion. (It’s a he, and his name is Guy-1.) I heated some water to just under a boil, and prepped four successive infusions – two at thirty seconds, two at forty – with 1 heaping teaspoon of leaves.
First infusion (thirty seconds): The liquor brewed light amber with a malty nose. (Very Indian.) The flavor possessed an herbaceous front that transitioned creamily to a vanilla-dipped grape crescendo before tapering off gently. A damn good start, if I do say so.
Second infusion (thirty seconds): The soup infused to a prime-gold color with an amber-ish periphery. It was lighter but also…shinier. As for taste, the initial sip was crisper than before, followed by a bolder middle profile kicking with lemon and apple. Very cider-like, except – y’know – without the fizz or mind-numbing parts.
Third infusion (forty seconds): Yep, still gold. However, the steam aroma changed its tune to something creamy and sweet – like actual vanilla was in there. That didn’t quite translate to taste, but it was still wonderful with a floral aspect appearing alongside the citrusy lean.
Fourth infusion (forty seconds): This was the lightest of the four infusions, but it was also the most obviously “oolong” of ‘em. The foretaste was still crisp, yet there was a rougher, mineral-like transition to the muscatel middle. I likened it to a Formosa Alishan.
Two more steeps followed the initial four, but I didn’t take notes on them. Needless to say, they were nifty. While it held up to a gongfu(-ish) approach quite well, I think the Western way gave it a one-time punch of perfection. Like a liquid rendition of a one-night stand. That isn’t to say the four short steeps weren’t awesome; they just weren’t dipped in awesome like the A-MURR-ican mega-steep.
As luck would have it, I had an opportunity through another vendor to try the first flush Moonlight. I liked it quite a bit, but it had nowhere near the nuance of the summertime cup that nearly road-tripped my tongue to tea-ish ecstasy. Without exaggeration or pontification, this was the best darned Darjeeling I have ever had. Worth a howl or two.
To buy Thunderbolt Tea’s Castleton Moonlight (2011 2nd Flush) go HERE.