smoked

Hark! I Herald Booze Blends

I’ve noticed a particular trend lately – one that I fully encourage and support. Nay, I salute it! Tea and alcohol, while completely opposite beverages on the Sin-o-Meter, pair exceptionally well. Whether it be tea-infused alcohol or alcohol-scented tea, the combination of both bring an added dimension of badass that I fully back. The high-points for me in this new blend-trend have been recorded for posterity on this here site…and waxed non-poetically over the Twitterverse.

Of all the combinations, I ran into a yerba maté variant only once – that being an India Pale Ale brewed with yerba maté leaves. Well, someone finally went the opposite route and used yerba maté as a base for scenting. I had associated with Caleb Brown – purveyor of Handmade Tea – over Twitter for a few months but had never tried any of his wares. His tea business model was a unique one – offering subscriptions to his one-blend-a-month formula. It was a similar approach employed by 52Teas but with more of a personal touch.

Caleb does all the blending himself, and includes the blending ingredients in separate tins for perusal. In addition to that, he sends a personally-stamped letter (for authenticity, I guess?), and films an accompanying video about the tea. That’s a lot of effort for one blend, which is probably why he only does one a month.

December’s offering – dubbed “Hark!” for the impending holiday season – was a yerba maté medley comprised of Vietnamese cinnamon and whole leaf peppermint. The real grab, though (and the reason he contacted me), was what he did with the maté base. He hand-smoked it over whiskey oak chips.

So. Much. Awesome.

Upon opening the tin, the first thing I noted was how strong the peppermint aroma was. That didn’t come as a surprise, but I was worried about it dominating the other elements. There was a smoky presence to the scent as well, which showed in the introduction and after-whiff. Cinnamon was…well…it was understated, and that was fine by me.

The logo-stamped letter came with brewing instructions for the blend, something I greatly appreciated. The recommended approach was the use of up-to-212F water and an infusion time of five minutes. That was about right, given the strong herbals at play here. I measured out a teaspoon and used one 8oz. cup at the time recommended.

The liquor brewed a foggy gold with a boldly minty cloud wafting from the cup. So much for the peppermint being understated. On taste, the first thing to hit me was the feeling of peat smoke – an excellent start. That was followed up by a middle entirely monopolized by the mint. Nothing else had a chance to shine through. However, once that faded a bit, the smokiness returned with a fervor lined with a spicy-sweetness imparted by the cinnamon. Said sweetness had remained as an undercurrent until the right reveal. A very Keemun-like aftertaste; no complaint here.

For s**ts and giggles, I brewed up the whiskey-smoked yerba maté sample by itself. I would’ve been just as happy drinking that as with the fully-blended Hark!. The best part was that it didn’t taste like yerba maté, which – in my opinion – has the flavor of splinters. All that said, this was a festively naughty blend with just the right amount cool cleanliness (thanks to the mint). Like a gentleman’s club lined with holiday décor.

But it does beg the question I want to pose to the “teanut” gallery. What is the consensus regarding the marriage of tea and alcohol? What tea-totalers out there would drink something that’s flavored or scented with beer, wine or liquor? Would an alcohol connoisseur drink something with tea as the added ingredient? And, by proxy, would they drink tea with that same profile?

I straddle the fence of both sides like a village idiot – elixir in hand.

To subscribe to Handmade Tea, go HERE.

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Monday, December 12th, 2011 Steep Stories No 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

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