Oolong

Tschanara, Germany’s First Tea Garden

NOTE: While I usually don’t update this blog with tea-related articles, I had to since my main tea blog was having server issues. However, if it’s working by the time you come across this article, and you require a mobile friendly version, go HERE.

Growing tea in Germany . . . of all places . . .

Hintersee

Blame Wikipedia for putting that fantasy in my head. I remember reading up on tea customs in European countries, and there was a sub-section on East Frisia. It was one of the few regions in Germany that even had a tea culture to speak of.

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Thursday, August 25th, 2016 Steep Stories 7 Comments

The Frederic Saga

Beverages often have stories to them, either of how they were made or about what inspired them. The story behind Oakshire Brewing‘s Frederic C. Noir is probably the longest and most varied I’ve ever come across. Practically a saga, even.

Here is the bottle description verbatim:

“Originally brewed for the 1st Anniversary of Eugene’s 16 Tons, “Frederic’s Lost Arm” was a collaboration with J-Tea International – a Saison made with Iron Goddess Green Oolong Tea. This farmhouse style ale was a tribute to the French writer Frederic Sauser who lost dominant arm in WWI before learning to write with his other hand. We laid the beer to slumber for two years with Brettanomyces Clausenii, a wild yeast evoking fruity aromas and earthy, funky flavors. Fred is light, crisp, and fruity with mild herbal noes and a pineapple-like finish. See what time has done for Frederic C. Noir! Cheers to three years of prosperity at 16 Tons!”

A year ago, I had the pleasure of sampling Frederic’s Lost Arm. (Man, that sounds wrong out of context.) Josh Chamberlain of J-TEA was the one who gave me the heads up. That batch had been aged in a gin barrel for several months, resulting in a very juniper-laden and sour ale that I adored. I didn’t get much of an oolong taste from it, but my nose was clogged at the time. Any gentle presence would’ve been lost on me.

J-TEA Josh – again – alerted the social mediasphere of a sequel to that batch. Yes, the beer had a damn sequel. How does that happen?! It was the remainder of the Lost Arm batch, but this time – aged in a Pinot Noir barrel for two years. I’m no stranger to wine barrel-aged beers. Many have graced my palate, but this was my first wine barrel-aged tea-beer. That combined both of my favorite pursuits – barrel-aged beers and tea-beers. The only downside…it was only available in Eugene. Two friggin’ hours away from my neck o’ the woods.

I mulled over the idea of a road trip for several days. Eventually, I almost gave up – telling myself, Eh, they probably ran out by now. Then a small part of me urged my fingers to the keyboard. I decided to contact 16 Tons via Twitter to see if they had any more Frederic left. By some small miracle, they did.

I was on the road to Eugene two days later.

My first stop was to visit the source for the oolong used for the beer – J-Tea International. While there, I was able to meet, pick the brain of, and sample the wares of the owner himself – Josh. He also informed me that the oolong used for the Frederics was a Four Seasons greener-style oolong from Taiwan. Not sure if this contradicts the “Iron Goddess” claim on the Frederic C. Noir bottle or if there was some confusion on my part. Taiwan does produce a Ti Guan Yin variant in the Muzha region. Eh, whatever.

The next stop was one of two locations that 16 Tons manages. For those that’ve never heard of it, it’s basically the specialty beer store(s?) in Eugene. Their reputation is well-earned. They carried many beers I hadn’t heard of (yet), and had several barrel-aged options on tap. After buying my precious bottle of Frederic, I was lucky enough to sample a wine barrel-aged beer produced by a monastery in Sweden. Absolutely wonderful way to pit stop.

In a display of profound patience for someone like me, I didn’t actually tear into this bottle until a week or so later. I wanted to do it in a more public setting than my usual tasting pattern (i.e. alone, in front of my computer). The perfect opportunity came in the form of a themeless party at a friend’s house in Camas. Yes, I know, Camas and I have some shaky history, but sometimes it’s well worth the risk. I may have been the only one drinking that early, but at least I was among friends. Still counts.

When I uncorked it, I braced myself for fizz. Nothing happened for a ten seconds. Then I pressed my nose to the bottle to get a good whiff. That’s when it happened…

A geyser of foam exploded up my nostrils. Luckily, it was a wonderful aroma that invaded my nose – sour, corky, and fruity. The liquor itself poured smoothly, and its color was a crisp, spring green with minimal head. It almost looked like a white wine.

And it kind of tasted like wine. The front was all Pinot – slightly astringent and kind of grapy – but the rest was a Belgian sour to the core. The finish was where I detected a bit of the oolong used for the beer’s water base. The herbaceous quality on the aftertaste was Formosan to a “tea”. I sipped this over the course of two hours while at the Camas party.

I departed early to make a second stop at a karaoke bar to meet some other friends. Somehow, someway, I thought it a bright idea to sing a bluegrass song whilst amidst the hipsterati of Northeast Portland. That was met with ironic stares. I giggled awkwardly on the inside.

I blame Frederic.

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Monday, May 13th, 2013 Beverage Blog 4 Comments

Tea Pairing with Job Hunting

The idea for this entry was suggested by my mother, as great ideas often are. It never occurred to me to pair tea with job hunting until she posed the idea after reading my tea-fueled rant. This reflection has – in no way – any science to back it up, just anecdotal “evidence”. Trial and error, hypotheses, and conjectures also played a key role in the missive. Oh, and oolong. Lots and lots of oolong.

Let’s begin.

Getting Started

As an unemployed person, one of the most difficult tasks is literally getting out of bed. Let’s face it, joblessness is depressing. Why does someone want to get started when it feels like their world is ending? The key is a self-fueled kick in the pants.

I’ve personally found that having a morning routine helps to motivate one away from the comfort of a ‘lectric blanky. Getting your day going as if you already have a job puts you in the right frame of mind to look for one. Shaving helps, too (for either gender). And for the love of God, put pants on!

Possible Tea Pairing:

Caffeine is required – lots of it. You need something that’ll give you an extra oomph! My personal recommendation is Assam. Better yet? Assam with some Lapsang Souchong sprinkled in. Nothing says, “Wake the f**k up!” like a caffeinated kick o’ campfire.

Writing a Resume and Cover Letter

If you – fair reader – are anything like me, you hate writing about yourself in a clinical manner. The urge to self-deprecate is a strong one. Same with wanting to sell yourself short. Some have a magical grasp of inflating their accomplishments; I am not one of them. Plus, I’m not very good at summarizing my abilities and accolades (whatever they are) concisely.

The importance is to consult others that have some expertise in these areas – people who’ve either submitted several times, or have a surefire approach. I’ve learned that submitting a resume or cover letter blindly, without having someone looking it over, is like turning in an obituary.

However, you don’t want to be too wired while you’re doing it. I’ve found that these two exercises require a lot of patience, or rather “calm wakefulness”.

Possible Tea Pairing:

I’m taking a page right out of Lindsey Goodwin’s recommendations by saying the best tea for writing is oolong. Sure, it’s caffeinated. And – depending on the sourcing – it can be strong. Yet I feel it truly gives someone a time-released dose of wake-up-call. Enough to instill a sense of focus. I turn to a good oolong – gongfu-ishly-styled – when I’m in the middle of a writing project. And believe me…resumes are a project.

Pounding the Pavement

As much as I hate to admit it, networking is the lifeblood of the job search. Talking to people, keeping your ears open, going from shop-to-shop, doing informational interviews, and putting yourself out there are mandatory. Ever hear that phrase, “It’s who you know…”

I’ll be damned if it ain’t correct.

Possible Tea Pairing:

Anything aged. In my experienced, teas – whether they’re oolongs, pu-erhs, black teas, or whites – that have at least five years on ‘em are eerily soothing. Sometimes they might actually taste as old as they are, but one thing can’t be denied. They make your brain feel like it’s sitting on a park bench feeding pigeons. Even when you’re doing something as socially uncomfortable as talking to people.

Just resist the urge to yell, “Get off my lawn!”

Interview Hell

Congrats! You’ve made it to an actual interview. Someone has taken the time out of their busy schedule to interrogate you for thirty minutes to an hour. But you don’t want to come across as a complete tool. (Unless they’re looking for someone useful.)

There are tips and guides aplenty on how to prepare for an interview. I’ve personally found that dressing to the nines doesn’t hurt your prospects. Where I’ve tended to fail, though, is in the verbal delivery. You don’t want to talk too fast or sound too deliberate. That and you want to have answers to questions prepared – in your mind, anyway. (Note: Do not bring cue cards.)

Some unorthodox methods for confidence and relaxation I’ve heard are: (1) Doing push-ups before an interview. Sound – if odd – advice from my brother. (2) Giving yourself an affirmation speech in the mirror. I do this. (3) Talking to someone before you leave for the interview. I’ve found that parents help. (4) Having a theme song. Okay, I made that last one up. Still, that’d be pretty sweet.

Possible Tea Pairng:

Gotta go green or white here. I made the mistake of having a pint of Earl Grey before an interview. At a tearoom, no less. The result? I was a motormouth, talking a mile a minute. My posture was equally off-putting – hunched over, feet tamping nervously. In other words, the less caffeine, the better. If you want to split the difference – a heartily brewed Bai Mu Dan should do the trick.

Rinse and Repeat

Your day is done. You’ve talked to people, made the rounds, applied for new jobs, and now all you want to do is relax. A cup o’ something herbal will work wonders. Pat yourself on the back…because guess what?

You get to do the whole thing again tomorrow.

Acknowledgements

I’d like to thank my mother for this idea. Do me a favor and like her career advice page on Facebook – Careers/College Not By Chance – HERE. She is an invaluable resource.

Much obliged.

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Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012 Steep Stories No Comments

Soba Up, Buckwheat! You’ve Had too Much Oolong Beer!

Obviously, I’m still playing catch-up. This is a flashback to late-January. I assure you, though, it’s totally worth it. Well, if you like tea in your beer. Moving along…

Tea and beer are my two favorite beverages in the world. Yes, the entire world. Both are also extremely habitual and have a lot of history to them. As a result, becoming geekily obsessed with the minutiae surrounding either drink is an obvious conclusion. So, what happens when I learn that both have been – somehow/someway – combined?

Answer: Geek overload.

I have tried several examples where tea and alcohol have been combined. In some cases, it was merely scented teas – either smoked or aged in a barrel – but on the other end of the spectrum are the alcoholic drinks that use tea leaves as an ingredient. My favorites of those, to date, have been an Earl Grey/tangerine zest ale and a jasmine green tea mead. I had yet to run into a brewery that found a creative use for oolong, though.

In the Fall, a friend brought to my attention that Oakshire Brewing out of Eugene, OR. had done just that. Alas, I was a whole week behind the times. The stuff had long since been drunk dry. Fast-forward to January: The purveyor of J-Tea – the pivotal “J” himself – brought to my attention that it wasn’t all done yet. In fact, the beer in question had a second go-around left. Better still? It was a gin-barrel-aged, Belgian-style saison that was brewed with Taiwanese greener-style oolong as an ingredient. An oolong provided by “J”.

Josh Chamberlain brewing oolong in a keg!

Josh Chamberlain brewing oolong in a keg!

My brain exploded.

The tasting itself was being held at a cheese bar in Southeast Portland, and – as luck would have it – it was also one of my days off. Only one small snag, though. I was still sick from the second round of “Le Plague”. I didn’t care; this was worth leaving quarantine.

I was able to form a mini-posse with two other friends to make the trip. Matt Van Wyk – Oakshire’s brewmaster himself – was also on-hand to answer any questions about the brew itself. (And pick his brain, I did.) The name of it was completely awesome: Frederic’s Lost Arm. I couldn’t tell ya what it meant, though.

The brew itself? Needless to say, it was superb. The Oakshire folks know how to brew a damn good beer, and this was no exception. It was strong on the juniper note toward the front, followed by the sour Belgian-ish-ness in the middle. The aftertaste was both sweet and bitey. The only disadvantage was, there was no sign of oolong to be found. I guess all the cask-conditioning willowed away any punch the green Formosa could deliver. No surprise there. Taiwanese oolongs can be on the gentle side. However, if I tried – even through my clogged state – I could remember a bit of a honey-like texture to it.

Short answer: “Dayamn”.

*****

On a completely unrelated night that same week, I finally tore into a sample that was sent my way by fellow writer/blogger, Jo Johnson. She had seen mention of soba-cha on my “Tea WANT!” list and decided to impart some to me. I knew it wasn’t a rare tea to come by, but I was extremely grateful that she beat me to the punch.

For those who don’t know, “soba” simply means “buckwheat” in Japanese. I don’t know much about the grain other than the name being applied to idiots. That said, when I took a whiff of the stuff, I was greeted by a pungently nut-sweet aroma that could rival rooibos in its delivery.

Alas, the taste didn’t quite reflect the aroma’s sweetness, imparting a nutty brew that reminded me of rice, barley, and sweetened peanuts. While surprised with the change in profile, I still rather enjoyed it. The little granules held up to a boiled-water/five-minute brew-up with surprising sturdiness, and it was a far cry better than some rice-laden teas I’ve tried. (Yes, I’m talking to you genmaicha.)

Speaking of genmaicha…recently, I had an epiphany to one day try this blended with a kabusecha-style tamaryokucha (heavily-shaded, curly green tea from Kumomoto) and maybe a dash of Nishio-grown matcha. Maybe I’ll give it a try soon and record the results…but that’s a subject for another schizoid rambling.

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Monday, March 26th, 2012 Beverage Blog, Steep Stories 2 Comments

Smoked Assam-ness

It may come as a shock to some people, but there actually is more to Stash Tea than the 20 ct. boxes one finds at the supermarket. One look at the website will provide evidence of this. They actually possess one of the most extensive specialty tea lines I’ve come across. That and their single estate columns (yes, plural) provide an extensive roster of places I’d never even heard of. Granted, some of those are pricy as all purgatory, but the fact remains that they’re there.

I was lucky on a random Wednesday in September to have both a gift certificate given to me for my birthday and a very easy drive to their brick-‘n-mortar store. That’s right. Their headquarters is in my neck of the woods. Twenty-minute drive – tops.

My goal that afternoon was their Fancy Golden Tippy Hao Ya; it was a peculiar Yunnan-grown beast with a Keemun grade for some reason…and it had “gold” in the title. Their Rwandan White was also calling my name. When I moved from one to the other, though, I came across something I didn’t expect. Three words: Smoked Assam Oolong.

No three words cried out to me with greater urgency than that.

Someone had brought this to my attention as a blog comment a while back. On one of my many loving tirades about Lapsang Souchong, a random commenter mentioned a Smoked Assam from Grey’s Tea. It caught my fancy, but only for a little while. My attention span – I guess – was particularly thin that day. What gave me pause was the mention on the Stash bag that this was the only oolong produced in Assam, India. That made me think that both Grey’s and the one I was buying were one in the same.

A random Google perusal confirmed my theory a bit. The only smoked oolong to come out of Assam was produced by the Mothola estate – the same wacky geniuses that produced the Assam White from Canton Tea Co. I adored so much. I could find no notes on the estate itself, but there was passing mention of the smoking process used. Unlike, say, Lapsang Souchong or houjicha (which I hate), this oolong was smoked over oak wood. The result was an oolong differing greatly from other roasted varieties.

And differ, it did. Appearance-wise, the leaves resembled Da Hong Pao in shape and size, but the variation in color was strikingly different. Instead of being blue or jet black, the pieces ranged from charcoal dark to tippy gold. Yes! GooooOOOOoooold! As for aroma, it earned its “Smoked” moniker with ease, albeit not as pungently as Lapsang Souchong. The feeling of campfire was indeed there, but it ended on a – how to put it – roasted fruit note? Odd, I know.

I was torn on the best approach to use with this. A primal part of me yelled, “Steep the s**t out of it like Lapsang!” While a more sensible, inward gent urged me to go for a gongfu preparation. Against my better judgment, I consulted my inner arbiter and went with both. First the gongfu prep for pretention, then Western-style for the wild side.

The first called for water heated to about 190F, a gaiwan, 2 tsp. worth of smoky leaves, and four successive infusions – the first two at thirty seconds, the last two at forty. In sharp contrast, the Western approach called for merely a filter, a mug, and a three-minute steep.

First infusion (thirty seconds): Holy PEAT! It smelled like whiskey that’d been lit on fire, except for that whole “turpentine” part. The liquor was a pale-to-medium gold, nowhere near betraying the strength of scent that befell me. The flavor had a woody, burnt front that settled into an odd earthiness. A peculiar start so far.

Second infusion (thirty seconds): The liquor was even more deeply entrenched in gold now. That made me happy on a feverish level. The aroma was just as peat-fiery as the first infusion. On sip, the foretaste was just as pungent on delivery but gave way to a mild fruitiness on finish. Very mild behind the initial inferno.

Third infusion (forty seconds): Not much of a color change here, it was still prospecting the gold palette proudly – content in its Midas magnificence. However, a new dimension to the smell reminded me of burnt leather. The taste was bit more inviting in its crisp, lightly smoky, and strangely silky delivery.

Fourth infusion (forty seconds): This was the shiniest of the gold-lacquered liquors. The cup also had the boldest whiskey aroma. The taste differed due to its compromise between smoke and earth. It reminded me of Mark T. Wendell’s Hu-Kwa – a gentle Taiwanese smoked black. I felt like I was blowing smoke rings out of my clear cup.

New infusion, Western-style (three minutes): I was very surprised by the results of this. The cup brewed bright amber – more like a black tea than an oolong. The scent wafting from the cup was still smoky, but there was something else there. Something…plum-like? No subtlety here; the flavor went from fire-whiskey to flaming saddles in two seconds, followed by a burnt apple top note, and finishing with a pipe tobacco sensation. Clearly, the Western approach was not for the sensitive of palate. Well, unless the drinker was Russian.

Verdict? The first time I tried this, I was quite taken aback. Sure, I was a regular Lapsang Souchong drinker, but this was something else entirely. The oak-firing process produced a tea that was initially subtle on the nose but packed a wallop on taste. It was like being punched in the face, then kissed afterwards. On the second – and “official” try – I had my bearings in brewing this properly. Gaiwan is the only way to go. Anything cruder would result in a brew that tastes like burning. Unless you like that sorta thing. I say try it out if given the opportunity, especially if you have stones of steel.

For more info on Stash Tea’s Smoked Assam Oolong, go HERE.

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Wednesday, October 19th, 2011 Steep Stories No Comments

Trippin’ on Moonlight

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.

Photo by Bruce Berrien

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.

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Wednesday, September 14th, 2011 Steep Stories No Comments

Smells Like Pure Nirvana

In Buddhist thought, nirvana is defined as “freedom from suffering”. That doesn’t just mean pain, but rather freedom from the game of life (or “samsara”). It also signifies freedom from the endless cycle of death and rebirth – the ultimate goal for attaining spiritual oneness with all things. The word was also the name of an overrated grunge band from the early 90s that somehow became the voice of “my generation”. Their music symbolized freedom of a different sort.

While nirvana no longer holds the same connotation thanks to that rock-‘n-roll inception, it does still hold significance. Being a thirtysomething with a dubious lot in life, I try to find peace wherever I can get it, preferably not in a harmful and addictive way. Well…one out of two ain’t bad. Oolong may be good for me, but it’s also really addictive. Funny, since I started off hating oolongs.inflatable water slides

Ever since learning to brew the semi-oxidized teas in a gaiwan, they’ve become habit forming. Oh, I still prefer my matchas, white teas, and Yunnan golds over ‘em, but I could drink oolongs all day. All. Day. White teas are like Cavendish pipe tobacco. Oolongs are menthol cigarettes.

Thus far my favorites have all come from the isle of Taiwan (or Formosa to the old school sort). Some Chinese ones have proven themselves worthy of multiple sips, but they don’t hold a candle to a high-altitude Bai Hao or Alishan. That said, there was one region that I hadn’t tried oolongs from, even though I’d heard scant mentions of them – Darjeeling. A random message from East Pacific Tea Co. changed all that.

In appearance, their Pure Nirvana bore a striking resemblance to just about every Darjeeling first and second flush OP I’ve ever seen. The color palette ran the gamut from tippy gold to roasted, dark brown. If I was looking at this blind, I would’ve guessed it was an Indian black tea or a Formosa oolong. The aroma was also inviting with its clean, grape-spice profile – almost like a white tea but deeper.

Brewing instructions recommended a steep of three-to-five minutes in 195F water. I agreed with the temperature but not the prep. If it was an oolong, there was only one way I could do it. You guessed it, in a gaiwan.  I used 1 heaping teaspoon of leaves , did four successive steeps – first two for thirty seconds, the last for forty – and jotted down my opinions of each. I hoped there were shifts in flavor between them like its Chinese counterparts.

First infusion (thirty seconds):  “Holy whoah!” was my first reaction to the scent of this pale, amber-colored infusion. That grape lean I detected on a dry whiff had doubled after brewing. It smelled like a first flush Darjeeling with a muscatel lean. Taste reflected that as well. The only major difference was the roasty finish, reminiscent of other oolongs.

Second infusion (thirty seconds):  The liquor was darker this time, taking on a copperish-gold palette. The aroma was deeper on the spice with a slightly nutty trail-off. This echoed as well in the taste with a tamale-esque forefront, followed by a fruity body and a faint astringency on the aftertaste.

Third infusion (forty seconds): Straight amber infusion this time ‘round with a more balanced spice-grape aroma. One nostril note didn’t dominate over the other. The flavor was also more even, if a little more subdued. Heavier fruit taste on the finish, though, and almost no dryness/bitterness.

Fourth infusion (forty seconds): While more bitter than the other three steeps, this was perhaps my favorite. Everything just seemed louder and lovelier from the scent to the flavor. There was also an earthier tone to it, which truly made it an oolong in my eyes.

Pure Nirvana kept its strength for at least three infusions later, never letting up on its muscatel profile for a moment. After a rather long work week, it was truly a pleasure to experience this wonderful oolong. I stayed at home in my pajamas, sipping the day away like some fat, thirtysomething Buddha. And I was happier for it.inflatable water slides

For more information on East Pacific Tea Company, go HERE.

To buy Pure Nirvana, go HERE.

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Tuesday, June 21st, 2011 Steep Stories No Comments

From Opium to Oolong – Tea from Thailand

When I thought of Thailand in terms of tea, the only ones that came to mind were Thai sweet tea and Boba (or “bubble”) tea. The former of which was a glass of sugar with a little bit of tea in it; the latter I hated beyond measure. (Tapioca belonged in pudding…not tea.) As a result, it was easy to dismiss Thai tea culture as something only spoken of in giggle-fitted whispers.

A travel blog posted by Leafjoy corrected my preconceived notions by relating a rather interesting story. Apparently, in Northern Thailand – a place that’d become a tribal melting pot – they grew their own tea. Chiang Rai province was infamous for it’s old cash crop standby – poppies, the primary ingredient for opium. That had since changed to more orthodox offerings such as fruit and tea plants. The entry arched my “Tea WANT!” eyebrow. I hate it when it arches.

Courtesy of Leafjoy.com

I figured that acquiring some in recent months would be a distant and unlikely possibility, but serendipity had other things in store. On my Smith Teamaker jaunt to pick up the new Mao Feng Gin, I ran into Steven Smith himself.

“I have something you have to try,” he said.

He brought out a green bag adorned in Asiatic lettering and poured out some blue-green, balled oolong-ish leaves. The “blue tea” – as he called it – was given to him as a sample from a business contact in Canada. Said contact was curious if Smith wanted to carry it. In turn, he was curious what I thought of it. Neither of us were quite sure what the “blue tea” moniker meant, though. Steven also didn’t have any other details for me other than the tea itself and the growing region (Doi Tung). I thanked him profusely and went home to do a little digging and brewing.

The blue tea search left me quite stumped, however. I could find no mention of blue tea other than a listing on the Mariage Frères site for an “Opium Hill” tea. It looked the same as the sample I received from Smith. Unfortunately, their information on it – other than being of Thai origin – was sparse.

Dejected, I did what any tea geek would do in that situation. I turned to a more well-versed and aptly-named Tea Geek. He informed me that blue tea (or “qingcha”) was another given name for wulong/oolong. It was a blanket category for all semi-oxidized teas because of the blue-ish hue they take on after drying. It was a bit of a misnomer, much like the Western “black tea” label.

The leaves for this were “tricksy” in their appearance. On sight alone, they looked like any normal green-style oolong I came across. The semi-oxidized, blue-green color, and the ball-fisted rolling technique were not too different from Chinese or Taiwanese oolongs. If I didn’t know any better, I would say I was looking at a Bai Hao/Oriental Beauty – a light-roasted one at that. What informed me that I was dealing with something completely different was the aroma. I smelled berries; rather, three distinct ones – strawberries, grapes, and blueberries – fused together. It was like wrapping a Fruit Roll-Up around one’s nose.

Given the entirely new experience on sight and smell, there was no specific brewing template to go by. A good default with an aromatic, light-roasted oolong was multiple infusions in a gaiwan with 190F water. Basically, gongfu-style but less formal. I did exactly that with four steeps – two at thirty seconds, two at forty – 1 tsp. worth of leaf-balls.

First infusion (thirty seconds): I’ll be honest, it sorta smelled like pondwater. The liquor also looked river-green. The taste, however – while possessing a vegetal forefront – transitioned to a wonderfully floral body and a subtle fruit finish.

Second infusion (thirty seconds): This time the liquor took on a brighter color and a more aromatic scent – buttery like lotus blossoms. The floral character also echoed in the taste but with something more akin to jasmine. That could’ve been the somewhat dry forefront. The mid-body was more melon-like this time, very even in comparison to the first. What little aftertaste there was passed by with a smooth texture.

Third infusion (forty seconds): Same visual palette but with an indiscernible nose. It was neither an earthy or floral scent but rather something “clean”. In sharp contrast, the taste took on the berry notes I detected in the dry, fisted leaves. Very prevalent in the middle. Again, the aftertaste tapered off pleasantly.

Fourth infusion (forty seconds): The liquor color had lightened significantly to a pale yellow, more in line with some spring flush green teas. The taste still had plenty to offer, though. It alternated between fruity, creamy and floral – like a grape that’d been dipped in honey-vanilla and wrapped in petals for warmth. The finish possessed more of a vegetal kick, signifying that it was almost at the end of its yield.

This Thai goodie didn’t fade, though, until about infusion #7, much to my surprise. The flavor remained pretty even throughout, no major detractions from its original smoothness. That and it never took on the metallic astringency of an over-brewed Ti Kwan Yin.

While the initial steam aroma was off-putting on the first infusion, this was a very reliable introductory oolong. I’m not sure it would hold up in a taste-test against a good Wu Yi or Ali Shan, but right out of the starting gate, I’d say Thailand is off to a damn good start. This was the Shiraz of oolongs.

Special Thanks to:

Smith Teamaker – For providing the sample, and for terrific tea talk as always. I always feel at home there.

Michael J. Coffey (purveyor of TeaGeek.net) – For having the world’s most magnificently ironic name name ever, and for clearing up the “blue” debacle. He’s a fountain of tea knowledge.

Leafjoy – For their informative tea blog and for giving me permission to use one of their photographs.

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Friday, May 13th, 2011 Steep Stories No Comments

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