I think it’s high time I talk about the Castleton estate.
The Arya tea estate has a fascinating history, even among the many that dot the Darjeeling region, especially because of its original name – 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.
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.
But let’s stay focused here.
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!
Earlier today, I finally clicked on my “2013: Year in Review” thingy on Facebook.
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.
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!!!
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?
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.
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:
The rest will sort itself out.
As the best years of our lives often do.
2012 can suck it.
Okay, perhaps I should elaborate. Since about – oh – 2008, I can’t say I’ve had a particularly “good” year, by any stretch. They’ve usually been a mish-mash of good and bad. The finest example of this was 2010, which was just…bipolar. 2012, however, was just all-around shite right out of the starting gate. So bad, in fact, that I took an (unintentional) hiatus from anything to do with writing for the better part of December. I had nothing positive to impart, and – frankly – didn’t feel like rehashing my dark mood.
As a result, for this entry, I’m going to focus on the (few but far between) positive moments of the last year. Over the summer – like I’ve said in prior entries – I decided to “retire” from tea reviewing. My heart (and time) weren’t into it anymore. I was also under the delusion of focusing on other projects. That didn’t quite pan out, but – honestly – was anyone really surprised?
One of the things I was looking forward to was finally whittling down my vast tea stores. Without an influx of new teas coming in, perhaps I could finally notch them off – one cup at a time. That didn’t quite pan out, either. Reason being? The kindness of strangers. I may have given up on tea reviewing…but it didn’t give up on me.
I would like to highlight and wax awesomely about some of these kind folks:
The Photo-Biker Tea Shaman
If – by the grace of Brahma – I ever make it to Darjeeling in my lifetime, the first person I’m looking up is Benoy Thapa of Thunderbolt Tea. Back in ’08, when I first started writing about tea, I received a random Facebook friend request from him. It took me to several months to do “the maths” to figure out that he was the headliner of Thunderbolt. The following year, he sent along a care-package of teas to review and a few other goodies.
He is solely responsible for my complete 180° opinion change about Darjeeling teas. In 2012, he came through again with some exquisite teas from Turzum, Risheehat, and Castleton. I wrote about each and every one of them, and I still pull the packs out for reflection. Benoy is probably the nicest tea-guy I’ve ever met, and I hope one day to shake his hand. And buy all of his tea. All of it.
Tea MC Tiff
There was a time in the middle of the year when I made regular tea pit stops to my favorite brick-‘n-mortar stores. On Saturdays, I usually made runs to The Jasmine Pearl. On Mondays, I could be found at Smith Teamaker. For the latter, I usually went in the morning before the rush started.
Tiffany was often the host on duty, and gracefully put up with my esoteric tea-fueled diatribes for the two hours I was there. She also made a mean bowl of matcha. Aside from the bowl, I usually left the place about two pots in.
On one such outing, she informed me that she and her son were planning a trip to Japan. She asked if I knew of any tea gardens that were near Kyoto. I racked my brain for a bit while sipping, then it hit me. Obubu! (I love that name.)
I gave her the info on how to contact the garden for a tour. The following week, she told me that her contact form hadn’t been approved yet, nor had she received a reply about it. I took to Twitter to contact their main sales-guy directly. He replied mere seconds later and sped up the process.
Tea MC Tiff ended up visiting the plantation and had a wonderful time. That and she brought back some teas (plural) from her trip. Chief among them, some Hawaiian green and sakura blossoms – the latter of which had been on my Tea WANT! list forever. It took me forever to try it, but I’m thankful for the opportunity.
It really is who ya know.
The Purrfect Cup
Courtney Powers (great spy name, by the way) is my girl-bro. I say that because I can’t think of any other gal that has had my back in 2012 like this sister-blogger. She encouraged me if/when I was ever down, she was the perfect NaNoWriMo cheerleader (which I never completed), and the best part…
She sent me some damn good tea.
Thanks to her, I was finally able to try some of the wares from Verdant Tea, a company that I’d been eyeing for several months. Their Zhu Rong and Laoshan series were topnotch. And I wouldn’t have been able to say that if it weren’t for her “purrfect powers”.
The SororiTea Sister
The funny thing about this fellow tea reviewer – alias, LiberTeas – is that she’s practically a neighbor. I’ve never met her – probably never will – but some of the best teas I tried this year stemmed from her. Steepster’s to blame. I saw an update on that tea social media site regarding a Darjeeling white I’d never tried from my favorite estate – Giddapahar.
I left only one comment on the actual SororiTea Sisters review. I think it said, “WANT!”
A couple of months later, I received a package from her with that Darjeeling white, and a few others she thought I’d enjoy. Prior to that, we had made a few tea swaps, and almost always, they had been unsolicited. She’s just that nice. I still have quite a few of those samples to pound through, too.
The Powers That Be
Along with insanely good blogging tools and advice, the Davenport duo that run this here site have also shown great tea patronage. This year, Jackie imparted some offerings from the Doke estate – the one managed by the Lochan family. One was an oolong; one was a white. Both were exquisite.
I had plans to include them in an epic story, but that never came to pass – alas. But I’m still grateful to have had the opportunity to sip them. Copiously.
Big Brass Butiki-s
As I’ve mentioned before, Stacy Lim – the purveyor of Butiki Teas – is on my palate wavelength. She has a flare for the unusual, a leaning I can relate to and respect. She sent me an e-mail some months ago wondering if I’d ever heard of Japanese pu-erh. I rattled off some things I had tried, yet she said those weren’t what she was thinking of.
Before I could apologize for not being more useful…she offered some up for sampling. A month or two later – barring hurricane delays – I received an ample package containing a sample of the aforementioned pu-erh and a few others. Of the nine, I’ve unfortunately only made it to two. With tea patronage like this, delays are inevitable. I couldn’t thank her enough.
“The Hero of Canton”
Back in the spring, I was “commissioned” by Canton Tea Co. for a guest blog on a couple of new Dan Congs they were putting on the market. Unfortunately, being well…uh…me, I didn’t finish the guest blog until that summer. I received an e-mail back from their sales lead stating that they had other plans for the blog. They were about ready to launch a new weekly tea club, and they wanted me to be a VIP.
What this meant exactly, I had no clue. I thought it consisted of a couple of samples as payment for the guest blog, and that was it. Boy, was I wrong.
It’s been twelve (or so?) weeks since the official Canton Tea Club launch, and I’m still a member. I get new and unique teas once per week. They have yet to call upon me to do another write-up, but the teas keep a-comin’. I’m starting to wonder if it’s a clerical error, or if they’re seriously just that cool. For now, I’ll go with the latter and not question it.
I “heart” them dearly. And, seriously, their tea club is a game changer. You – fair reader(s?) – should check it out.
The Great Wizard Zendalf
Also in the spring, I received a DM over Twitter from Zen Tara requesting to send me some Darjeeling to review. This was prior to my “retirement”, so I naturally said, “Hell yeah!”
Time went by, though, and I never saw a package. I didn’t press them on it because – well – that’d be douche-y. What would I have said, “Hey, where’s mah free tea?!”
I let it slide, and forgot about it over the passage of time. Literally a week before Christmas, I received a rather large box in the mail. Five teas were contained in said box with a letter from “The Great Wizard Zendalf”. It told an epic story of how this delivery came to be, and instantly earned my approval of awesomeness. Among the teas in the package was a note-perfect golden-tipped Assam from the Khongea estate that I’ll be reflecting on at a later juncture. Still, what a way to make an entrance, Zen Tara. You know me too well.
Clouds and Mist
This wouldn’t be a true gratitude blog if I didn’t mention tea authoress, Jo Johnson. On top of being one of my biggest cheerleaders from the get-go, she also mentioned that I’m in the forward of her upcoming book. That alone caused more warm-fuzzies than any other moment this year.
A couple of weeks back I received a Christmas card and a sample packet of tea. It was a Cloud & Mist green, a type I’m not usually a fan of. However, I brewed it up anyway.
Not sure if it was the tea, my gratitude, or a bunch of other factors…but it was the best green I’d tried.
And I think that pretty much sums the good things from this year.
2012 can suck it
But I will still sip it.
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.