Toward the end of any year, content creators, influencers, media pundits (social or otherwise) are encouraged to create look-backs or listicles of the year-that-was. Throughout my long and industrious “career” as a tea blogger, I’ve made such reflections in the past. Usually commenting on how weird the year was, or how wonderful some aspect of it turned out. 2020, though . . . ?
Yeah, I don’t wanna.
It was a terrible, terrible, TERRIBLE year by all objective measures. I won’t even go into detail as to why, I don’t have to, most of you reading this have felt the “Terrible” in your own lives. While I got away from feeling most of the brunt of 2020, my mental state did not. To the point where I took an unintended hiatus from writing anything for close to three months.
The result of that was a rather unwieldy backlog of tea stories I had yet to tell. Some I may not even get to, come to think of it. So, to close the year out (almost a month after it ended), I thought I’d egress—not with a story—but with a theme. For you see, over the course of the year, something(s) weird and wonderful did chance by me. White teas, quite a few weird and wonderful white teas.
One of the (few) benefits of this whole quarantine/lockdown thing we’ve endured so far in 2020 has been the chance to get to know new people. Granted, not in real outdoor life, but in an online capacity. During this period, I had a video call/tea session with one Joe Stanek, co-purveyor of the company Aera Tea. (The “Aera” was an Olde World-y form of “Era”, which I thought was kinda cool.) They were unique for two reasons—two regional reasons. They sourced teas from both Nepal and Yunnan.
Nepal is one of my go-to regions, so that occupied the body of our tea-centric conversation. Joe offered to send me examples of their wares. I asked if they possessed more than one from a particular farmer. He confirmed that they did, and I giddily mentioned that was totally my wheelhouse.
He kindly passed on two whites from one of their growing partners.
Earlier this year, a fellow tea blogger sent me information on an Indian tea growing region I’d never heard of.
Image owned by Ketlee
A place filled with old(er) growth, semi-wild assamica forests, which bordered Assam to the East. The state: Manipur. I knew nothing about this Indian state, other than the fact that it bordered Myanmar. That and it was well within the zone with which the Indian strain of Camellia sinensis var. assamica (a variety and subspecies of tea tree) grew plentifully. For some reason, I shrugged at this. Mainly because of the “wild” claim. How wild could these trees be, anyway?
The Araksa Tea Plantation is, by its own website’s declaration, one of the oldest in Chiang Mai province, Thailand. That’s not to say that it’s the oldest garden, or the oldest processor of teas. But by modern, Western-ish tea garden standards, that appears to be true.
Image owned by Araksa.
Araksa—which in Sanskrit means “Preserve”—was first plotted in 1939, utilizing assamica trees (by clone or seed) that grew plentifully in the area. Northern Thailand has a rich history of tea processing, dating back as far as the 1200s. Sheng puerh(-like) tea is the stock and trade for some of the Thai hill tribes in the area. But more established plantations were a rarity.
Like many such enterprises, though, this particular garden was abandoned, likely due to shifting economic whims. As a result, the garden went feral for several decades. It wasn’t until 2014, when the garden shifted to new owners, that tea production of a sort resumed. However, making tea alone wasn’t the sole emphasis.
Benifuki is an interesting Japanese tea tree cultivar. For one, it’s a cross between a cultivar heralding from the assamica variety, and another cultivar of the sinensis variety. A cross-breeding of this sort was to create a high-yielding cultivar designed for black tea and oolong production. Back in the 1960s, and even further back, Japan hoped to make black tea to compete with nearest rival, Sri Lanka. But those “plans” were waylaid. That probably also contributed to why the cultivar wasn’t officially registered until the early 1990s.
For more information on the cultivar, I suggest checking out My Japanese Green Tea’s article on the subject. Quite insightful.
Since then, the cultivar has been utilized to make, not only Japanese black tea (wakocha), but also different forms of sencha. It’s a pretty resilient li’l clonal. And somehow . . .
I may have had a hand in convincing a vendor to convince a farmer to make a white tea from it.
Sometimes, all it takes is a photograph to get me excited.
Image owned by Shiv Saria. 2017.
This was posted back in November of 2017 by one Shiv Saria. The tea in question was a Darjeeling white tea hailing from the Rohini tea estate. In most cases, that would be where the story ends, but if you’ve frequented this blog enough, you know there’s more to the story than that.
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.
Back in the spring of 2017, tea afficianado Nicky “Steady Hand Tea” Evers passed on a unique specimen.
A Wuyi oolong from 2005 that was wet-piled, dried … and stored in Taiwan. It fell into no discernible category. The taste was “like” a Hunan heicha … with notes of cliff side roast. I compared it to any ol’ dark tea being rubbed against a muddy, burnt cliff face, or jujubes that were sent to solitary confinement… then roasted on a spit. They died for my sins. Short version: it was interesting.
And as I’m wont to do after trying something far removed from any palatial paradigm, I began to wonder: were there other Fujian province-borne heichas out there. The only heicha or puerh-“like” things I’d encountered from that province were white tea cakes. Sure, those were good, but they weren’t dark tea. Or at least, per the definition I’ve come to adopt. (For now.)
In the fall of 2015, I found myself reading a tea blog (instead of writing one). Fellow tea geek Amanda Freeman used to keep one of the more prolific tea blogs in the community, and—at times—I suffered from a bit of professional jealousy. Often, she’d run into weird and strange teas before I did. And on this particular day, she wrote about this:
Photo by Amanda Freeman. Used with permission.
A white tea from Vietnam.
My jaw dropped and I salivated. So much so, that I contacted the vendor—What-Cha Tea—and begged for a sample myself. In typical fashion, I didn’t “punctually” drink it until . . . February. I remember it being a beautiful looking white made from exquisitely cultivated tea leaf buds, and the taste resembled nothing I had tried before; white or otherwise.
This may come as a surprise (to no one), but I’m a bit of a lurker in the tea community.
Various social media groups exist celebrating our beloved beverage and the many facets therein. On Facebook alone, I keep a keen eye out for interesting posts by some members of these groups. Particularly if someone runs into something new or weird—y’know, my basic tea blog mission statement. And on one such day, several months back, I ran into a photograph posted by West China Tea/Guan Yin Tea House’s purveyor, So Han Fan.
Image owned by So Han Fan.
A white tea grown and processed in Sichuan province, China.