As of 11 March 2014, my humans and I are no longer accepting tea samples. Too many tea companies focus on politics instead of tea and are often supporting things that we find injurious. We are now switching to a more information focused blog, telling you not just about the teas we are steeping but about the people and places responsible for them. Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Tea Stories: Doke Tea Garden Progress – Silver Needle

Doke Tea Garden is a story of people who dared to go ahead when everyone around them was saying it couldn’t be done. Useless land alongside the Doke River in the state of Bihar in northern India could never be used for growing tea of any noteworthy quality. They are also bucking some long-held Indian tea growing traditions: huge tea gardens growing sub-standard tea to be turned into that black tea dust in a bag. The Doke folks are instead producing their versions of some very traditional premium style teas. And over the past few years, the samples my humans and I have tried have had quite an improvement as the plants mature and the Doke folks learn more about how to produce these teas. Silver Needle is a prime example.

2012 – My humans aren’t expert on this type of white tea, but they have been fortunate enough to have tried a number of premium examples. So when the 2012 sample of this version arrived and we got ready to try it, no one was jumping for joy at the sight of those “buds” – and they were certainly no match for other Silver Needle teas. The flavor was not exactly inspiring, either. But did the Doke folks give up? Nope!

2013 – Well, a year later and another sample of Silver Needle was here for this little teapot and my humans to give a try. The first thing we noted was the appearance of the dry tea. The buds were a far cry from the 2012 “buds” – larger, well-formed, and with those all-important silvery hairs on them. But they weren’t quite “ready for prime time,” as the saying goes. The flavor was much better, but not quite up to the standard we had come to expect. No matter to the Doke folks – they were certain next year would be even better.

2014 – The latest sample we tried showed that Silver Needle from Doke is giving those Chinese versions some real competition. The buds were well-formed, beautifully silver with those fine “hairs,” and infused a great cup. It looks like the Doke folks and those more mature tea plants have achieved what others said couldn’t be done.

We don’t know how this 2014 version would hold up in competition, but it certainly gets kudos from my humans and a big teapot “TOOOT!” from me.

Where to buy: Lochan Tea.

Disclaimer: This tea was provided by the company named. However, any opinions concerning this tea and the company are always strictly objective. Information on where to buy is presented as a courtesy only.

© 2014 A.C. Cargill photos and text – All rights reserved. No copying, posting on other sites, or other uses allowed without written permission of the copyright holder.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Tea Stories: Lessons Learned from a Hai Lang Hao Raw Pu-erh from JAS-eTea

This tea story is one of try and try again. And these efforts have taught this little teapot and my humans some good lessons. Ever helpful and wanting to let you all learn from us, we are passing those lessons on. Our instructor (and yours): a small (very) sample of Hai Lang Hao 2005 Ba Ma Gong Chun Raw Pu-erh from our buddy humans at JAS-eTea.

Lesson One: Air is your pu-erh tea’s friend

Raw pu-erh is a tea class that claims a very loyal following. Very. And this tea is described by some fans as having “a thick liquor…with a sweet after-taste, while still retaining some bitterness…sure to please hard-core drinkers of sheng!” (This was after 4 years of storage, but this sample was 9 years old.) We plunged into trying some. However, we ran into a bit of a problem for this first round of infusions: the tea had been in its metallic pouch since 2009 and had been affected by that experience. Pu-erhs should be stored in the original bing paper wrapper or something that will let them “breathe” but help hold out odors (and keep them out of the kitchen or other places full of aromas you don’t want in your teacup). We let the sample air out for about 48 hours (at the vendor’s recommendation) and gave the tea another go. One very heartening sign was a much-improved aroma to the dry tea – a bit sweet and planty, no earthiness. Time for the second lesson.

Lesson Two: Don’t be afraid to experiment

Once the remainder of the dry sample had been aired out, we were ready to experiment. We played with this tea in a number of ways. First, we looked up how others had infused it and did our best to emulate those methods. Water temperature: 195°F. Infusion times: 1st was 10 seconds, subsequent was 15 seconds each. Steeping vessel: Mr. White Gaiwan (a true veteran in the tea infusing business). These things seemed to be good. The chunk we had in that sample, though, proved a challenge in trying to break off the right size piece without too much breakage of the leaves. My humans did their best but ended up with lots of little bits and pieces. They also ended up with too much tea leaf matter in the gaiwan. So, as part of their experiment, after several infusions, they removed about half of the leaves, mostly the more broken bits. Even so, they ended up with far more particulate matter in the cup than they found palatable. Which brought up another experiment that might shock many sheng lovers: a very fine mesh strainer. Yes, we know that this could affect mouthfeel, making the tea liquid thinner. But when they sipped the tea without straining, it was too bitter. Straining removed a lot of bitterness. It pays to be open to such innovations.

Here are six of the infusions (we did a total of 9):

Flavors were much improved here: 1 – light, smooth, pleasant (leaves not softened up enough yet for much of an infusion); 2 – a little stronger flavor (leaves still not fully softened); 3 – stronger flavor with a bit of edge; 4 – a little stronger (my humans had to break up a couple of hard clumps); 5 – a touch of sweetness initially, followed by smokiness and that bit of edge; 6 – milder, smoky, less edgy (my humans had removed about 1/3rd of the leaves from the gaiwan); 7 – milder, less edgy (my humans had removed some more leaves, reducing the total to about half of what they started with); 8 – slightly sweet, less edgy; 9 – lighter flavor, sweet.

For those who are new to pu-erh, we encourage you to play with amount of tea leaves, water temperature, and infusing times until you get a flavor that appeals to you. Our story here will hopefully encourage you in this.

Where to buy: This particular tea is not in stock but check JAS-eTea for similar teas.

Disclaimer: This tea was provided by the company named. However, any opinions concerning this tea and the company are always strictly objective. Information on where to buy is presented as a courtesy only.

© 2014 A.C. Cargill photos and text – All rights reserved. No copying, posting on other sites, or other uses allowed without written permission of the copyright holder.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Tea Stories: All Fired Up at Doke Tea with a New Oven & 4 Great Teas

Great progress being made a Doke Tea Garden. Those folks have that real “Little Red Hen” spirit. In case any of you humans don’t know that story, it’s about a little hen and her chicks who find some wheat grains, ask the other animals to help plant, harvest, grind them and then bake bread – at each step the animals say “Not I,” so she and her chicks did it themselves. Well, folks said that the land on which the Doke Tea Garden sits was useless – all except the little hens who have managed to turn it into a garden that is now producing teas that seem to get better not only each year, but each flush. We received samples of the latest batch of their white, green, oolong, and black teas. They show also that the new oven built there recently is adding its own unique touch to three of the four teas. On with the steepings! TOOOOOT!

As you can see in the photo above, the color of the liquid of these four teas varied quite a bit.
  1. Doke Silver Needle White Tea
  2. Doke Green Diamond Green Tea (misnamed, as far as we are concerned, but more about that later)
  3. Doke Rolling Thunder Oolong
  4. Doke Black Fusion Black Tea
All are second flush 2014 and hand-made from start to finish. After all, there is no electrical service to the garden at this time. That means not only no air conditioning or even electric fans but also no way to run machinery. The folks at Doke still tend to manage rather well, and the last couple of years have seen some big improvements, as least as far as this little teapot, my Tea Gang, and my humans are concerned. The dry leaves/buds are shown below.

The sight of those lovely leaves made this little teapot so happy that I did my little jig (I think I’ll start calling it the Doke Scoot!). The little sample packs applauded. Nice to have an appreciative audience (my humans just tell me to settle down and steep the tea.

In mid-August, the Doke River that flows along one side of this tea garden overflowed due to heavy rains and despite a dam that was supposed to generate electricity as well as control water flow down that river throughout the year. The dam is doing a great job, but sometimes the rains are quite a bit heavier than expected. Thankfully, the Doke folks said that the tea plants were unaffected. Soggy roots aren’t good for most plants, Camellia sinensis included. I did a quick flyover (virtually, of course) just to check on things. You can see my reflection in the still flood waters. Time to examine each of the teas above.

Doke Silver Needle White Tea

The buds for this version of Silver Needle were smaller than some from Fuding and other areas we’ve tried, but were plump and covered with those silvery hairs we have come to know and love, a sign they were obviously plucked while the buds were still very new and fresh on the plant stems. They had a sweet, hay-like aroma. We steeped according to the vendor’s instructions (80°C, 4-5 mins). The liquid was pale with a sweet aroma that had a hint of toastiness. The flavor was sweet, very mild, and underscored with a very slight vegetal quality. The second infusion was similar but a little sweeter and a slight planty quality that signaled we should stop here. This tea was not dried in the new oven, like the other three were.

Doke Green Diamond Green Tea

The dry leaves were a bit darker than we have come to expect from a green tea. And the aroma was totally unexpected but also quite a joy – a sweetish caramel-like aroma. A bit of a problem came up, though, when we went to steep. The vendor’s site says to heat water to 80°C and steep for 4-5 mins. Don’t. Seriously. We did and you should have seen the expressions on my humans’ faces when they took a good-sized sip. Burnt taste, bitter, astringent. Thank goodness there was enough dry leaves in that sample pack to start over fresh. This time we followed our own past experience.
  • Water temperature: 74°C (165°F)
  • Steeping times: 1 min, 1min 15secs, and 1min 15secs, 3 infusions possible from the same leaves
This time was much more successful. The liquid had a pale yellow color, a faint aroma, and a lovely, mild, pleasant, and slightly vegetal flavor. The second and third infusions also had a melon aroma. Three infusions seems the limit for us – a bit of edginess started creeping in. Despite that, we would like to propose a new name for this tea: Doke Green Ambrosia. Heaven in a cup! This tea was dried in that new oven, evident in the aroma of the leaves after steeping – there was a roasty quality.

Doke Rolling Thunder Oolong

Rolling Thunder is a most appropriate name here – not because the flavor will be a storm in your mouth, but because of the thunder that rolls through the area where this tea comes from. The dry leaves showed a substantial amount of oxidation, being dark blue green in color with some “golden” leaves, and they had a sweetish aroma.
  • Water temperature: 91°C (195°F)
  • Steeping times: 1 min 15 secs each, 3 infusions possible from the same leaves
The liquid had a rich amber color and an apricot-like aroma. The flavor had a nutty/roasty quality with apricot notes and free of any bitterness. Maybe this one should also have a better name: “Doke Oolong Dream.” It was also dried in the new oven, and the leaves after steeping had a smoky quality.

Doke Black Fusion Black Tea

We were quite pleased with the First Flush 2014 version of this tea and so eagerly snipped open that vacuum-sealed sample pouch to see how this one compared. The large leaf pieces had a raisiny aroma and a dark brown color, and they were in fairly twisty shapes. We adhered to the vendor’s instructions (195°F, 1-2 minutes) for the lighter flavored steeping. The liquid was a dark amber color and had a fruity aroma. The flavor was mild, with no unpleasantness and no need for sweetener. Enjoy with something sweet instead, such as dates, dried apricots, or even a nice slice of warm apple pie. We got two very tasty infusions from those leaves – quite a bargain. Then we tried the tea the way we steep most black teas (boiling water and steeping 5 minutes). The flavor was stronger; we tried it with some milk and sweetener – again heaven in a cup with an interesting aftertaste that spoke of that new oven at work (a bit of roastiness but rather welcome).

That New Oven Is Quite a Sight!

Remember that there is no electrical service at the Doke Tea Garden, so installing an oven that uses electricity was naturally out of the question. So, the solution was a specially designed oven made of bricks and cement. I dropped in during my virtual flyover to see how work was progressing. Looking good so far.

I did a return virtual visit and was in time to see the oven pretty much done. Looks pretty simple, right? But it can be a bit tricky to get the tea leaves roasted just right. The green, oolong, and black teas above were the results of their latest efforts. They use coal and lay the leaves out on screen-covered racks. Getting the right amount of heat is rather tricky.

A Real Tea Party

When all the official steeping and tastings are done, this little teapot throws a real tea party with some of my fave ‘she’ cup girlfriends. All bone china beauties who have graced the articles on this blog before. Each holds one of the teas above, and we all had a TEArrific time!

Where to buy: Lochan Tea Ltd.

Disclaimer: This tea was provided by the company named. However, any opinions concerning this tea and the company are always strictly objective. Information on where to buy is presented as a courtesy only.

© 2014 A.C. Cargill photos and text – All rights reserved. No copying, posting on other sites, or other uses allowed without written permission of the copyright holder.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Tea Stories: Makaibari Trying to Set a Price Record – a sample from Lochan Tea proves the worth

UPDATE: This tea was added to their store site 20140828. Prices are a bit of a shock: $10/25g $20/50g $30/100g $90/250g (due to the odd way their site is set up, the price you see can be a bit confusing since it is not apparent that it’s for 25g pkg)

Makaibari Signature Muscatel 2nd Flush 2014 from Lochan Tea

The race for higher prices for their teas is underway among various tea garden. Makaibari, a Darjeeling-designated tea garden, seems to be going gangbusters in this area, setting records for some of their teas. They have also been a Public Relations success, getting their name equated in people’s minds with Darjeeling tea (there are actually about 87 or 88 gardens in total, many of which produce equally fine teas such as the ones we posted about here recently from Giddapahar and Jungpana). The good folks at Lochan Tea, one of the vendors that carry teas from Makaibari and other top Darjeeling tea gardens, were gracious enough to send a sample of this very precious tea for me, my Tea Gang, and my tea-loving humans to try out. The question: Is this tea really worth a sky-high price? The answer: Well…we’ll have to see how it all goes here. TOOOOT!

Li’l Steeper Cup (aka “Li’l Tasting Cup” – he can’t make up his mind) was quite a trooper, infusing the tea to perfection! As you can see above, he infused up a bright amber liquid. But let’s back up a second to take a good look at the dry tea leaves. Larger pieces than usual. Variegated colors like we’ve seen in other Darjeeling teas. What you can’t see is the aroma: it lives up to the name, that is, it has the signature Muscatel aroma. These things by themselves do not explain the high price. Let’s soldier on with the steeping to see how that goes.

A quick note here: the folks at Makaibari are definitely working to improved the quality of their teas. Here is one we tried a few years back and were quite disappointed in (keep the size of the pieces on the right in mind as you continue reading):

We found that a water temperature of 185°F and a steep time of 2 minutes was very good for those two previous teas (the ones from Giddapahar and Jungpana), so we tried it with this one. #1 – light aroma, flavor was muscatel character but had that odd hint of corn that we have frequently gotten from Darjeeling teas, and there was also a hint of astringency but nothing too troubling. #2 – light aroma with a slight honey character, flavor was muscatel with more tang to it and hints of pepper and corn. #3 – lighter aroma and the flavor was muscatel but now free of that corn quality. (It turns out that “Makaibari” means literally “Maize Land” or “corn field.”)

Here are the leaves after the 3 infusions of each were done:

Look at the size of the leaves in the photo below. These were far less broken than before (see photo earlier in this post). They also range in color from that deep coppery color to green to a lighter yellowish green. There were stem pieces, larger leaves (but still small compared to many oolongs), tiny leaves, and even some that look like unopened buds (or just a tippy leaf that is still curled up).

After such an important tea tasting where yours truly supervised the proper steeping, I had to take a break and hang around with a couple of teacup buddies who have starred in several posts on this site. As for whether this tea is worth the price, I must confess to being puzzled and unsure. So, my humans helped me do some research on the tea garden to see what the fuss was. Read on to see the results of that search.

About Makaibari Tea Garden and Some Thoughts on Those Record Tea Prices

The Makaibari (literally “Maize Land” or “corn field”) garden is the granddaddy of the Darjeeling tea gardens (those within a certain specified geographical area) and was established in 1859. It is in the state of West Bengal in India, sits at an altitude of about 4,500 feet, is about 2 kilometers from the town of Kurseong, and is 40 kilometers from the town of Darjeeling (for which these teas are named). Temperatures range from 2-6°C in Winter and 12-18°C in Summer. They have a monsoon season with about 250-450mm rainfall from July to August (teas harvested during this time are called “rain teas” and considered of inferior quality by most tea connoisseurs – human and teapot varieties alike). In 1996 the garden set a price record when it sold its best quality tea (Silver Tips) for $400 a kilo. They are also part of the tea tourism in West Bengal and have a special visitor’s house called Stone House, with four luxury bedrooms, a spacious living room complete with iron-and-burnt-clay fireplace, cozy sitting arrangements. You can also stay with some of the tea workers in their homes.

Makaibari Tea Garden map shown above is a still capture from the full map here: Darjeeling Garden Map on Blog.

On June 16, 2014, the garden ownership changed hands. The Luxmi Group acquisition of the garden ended family ownership that dated back to the garden’s founding. However, the family will keep a share in the business, with family member Swaraj K. “Rajah” Banerjee (top image in the photo montage below) stays as chairman. Luxmi brings their business acumen to the arrangement to supplement Banerjee’s tea expertise. Luxmi has tea gardens in Assam, North Bengal, and Tripura from which they produce 15 million kilos per year. This purchase seems meant to help them enter a more upscale tea market. They bring operating capital (a lot of it) and management expertise to the deal. The garden seems to need both, possibly due to some odd decisions like reducing tea acreage from 550 to 270 over the past decade or so. Could also account for them inflating their prices. Trying to create an artificial image of a product so customers can be charged more seems a bit odd to this little teapot. We’re hoping Luxmi can bring some common sense to this arrangement, too.

Is This Tea Worth the Price?

Well, this is a toughie. My humans detected nothing too spectacular in the tea and are actually bothered by that corn character in the aftertaste. Not that they dislike corn, but in tea? Rather odd. And no matter how fancy you dress a pig, it’s still a pig, as my humans say. I’m not putting down the tea or calling it a pig, but the general point of the analogy works. They dress up the tea garden in various eco trimmings, returning much of the acreage to the wild so their production drops dramatically, and adding lacy touches to their reports about their tea with stories of how the workers pluck the tea by moonlight (for the Silver Tips). But the flavor is on a par with other Darjeeling teas that don’t have that pricing. Small wonder they need better business managers.

In the end, though, it’s you, the consumer, who sets the price. If you want to pay more because the Queen of England drinks tea from this garden or because they sent some to the Olympics in Brazil, that’s your choice. My humans liked the Giddapahar and Jungpana teas better and see them as more worth your hard-earned dollars. TOOOT!

Where to buy: Lochan Tea. [Note: as of the posting of this article, the tea is not on their store site, but you can send them an inquiry on availability.]

Disclaimer: This tea was provided by the company named. However, any opinions concerning this tea and the company are always strictly objective. Information on where to buy is presented as a courtesy only.

© 2014 A.C. Cargill photos and text – All rights reserved. No copying, posting on other sites, or other uses allowed without written permission of the copyright holder.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Tea Stories: A Joyous Jungpana Tea Experience

A Tea Master’s Masterpiece

We’ve featured teas from this garden before on this blog, with happy results, and now it’s time for another joyous adventure, featuring Jungpana FTGFOP-1 Clonal Darjeeling 2014 Second Flush Tea, a sign of true tea mastery. This is a limited edition tea from a 100+ years old garden that has survived changes in the region both political and otherwise. Li’l Steeper Cup did the honors here, and it was quite an adventure all round. TOOOOT!

The dry leaves have that wonderful signature Muscatel (grape-like) aroma with a bit of nutty quality. There are also lighter colored pieces said to be golden tips. They are from clonal bushes (that is, “vintage” tea plants were cloned) and are rated FTGFOP-1 (Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe of the first class).

Some vendors advise using water heated to a roiling boil and steep for 4 minutes. We were surprised at that but gave it a try anyway. The results proved us right: the steeping conditions were too harsh and produced an overly strong and somewhat astringent liquid. Thankfully, we had enough to start over. So I, your ever trustworthy little teapot, ordered the dumping of that failed steep and a lower water temperature of 185°F. Li’l Steeper Cup holds about 6 ounces of water so we used the amount of dry tea leaves shown above and infused them 3 times, starting with 2 minutes the first time and adding 15 seconds to the next two. This time, we felt the joy! The lower temperature and shorter steeping time gave us a lighter flavor full of a pleasant muscatel quality and a hint of honey with almost no astringency from first sip to last.. The 3rd infusion had a slightly sweet aftertaste.

Look at that liquid in the cup with its bright amber color and the leaves after Li’l Steeper Cup got through with them:

Compare the above second flush ( mainly coppery) to this first flush (more green) from the garden we tried a little while ago:

My after work get-together with one of the ‘she’cups here. I steeped up some more of that tasty tea for a real tea party. TOOOT!

About the Jungpana Tea Garden

At a mere 3,000-4,500 feet above sea level sits one of the smaller tea estates in the Darjeeling area of West Bengal in northern India. It is called Jungpana, a name based on a legend and meaning roughly “where Jung Bahadur had his last drink of water.” [Jung was a servant mauled by a tiger he was trying to keep from attacking his British hunter master. And “pana” means water.] The garden is under the general management of true legendary tea master Baikunth Nath Mudgal. Here’s his photo (by Rajiv Lochan of Lochan Tea):

Legendary Baikunth Nath Mudgal of Jungpana

The garden, originally planted by a British tea planter named Henry Lennox in 1899, has been producing undeniably vintage Darjeeling teas famous for their muscatel flavor. The Kejriwal family took over ownership in 1953 and still run it today. Despite their hard-to-access location (no roads), they have managed to build quite a reputation. Their teas have a distinct flavor attributed to their micro-climate on the south side of a mountain in the foothills of the Himalayas. Their tea bushes are pure Chinese jats, and they use manufacturing techniques that produce the finest rich flavor and bouquet for which Darjeeling teas claim the name “the champagne of teas.”

The Jungpana map shown here is a still capture from the full map here: Darjeeling Garden Map on Blog.

Some pics of the factory, etc., from their site:

Jungpana Garden Under Siege by Morcha-backed Union

While writing up this article, my humans and I came across a troubling article. Jungpana director Shantanu Kejriwal, a member of the family that has owned the garden since 1953, said he had ordered a work suspension (for the first time in the garden’s history) due to a “labour issue.” We hope the 260 who now rely on the garden for their living will be able to return to their normal work soon without further disturbances from outsiders. [UPDATE: The garden re-opened 13 August 2014, after a series of meetings with the union and a lot of politicking by the local government.]

Where to buy: Jungpana FTGFOP-1 Clonal Darjeeling 2014 Second Flush Tea.

Disclaimer: This tea was provided by the company named. However, any opinions concerning this tea and the company are always strictly objective. Information on where to buy is presented as a courtesy only.

© 2014 A.C. Cargill photos and text – All rights reserved. No copying, posting on other sites, or other uses allowed without written permission of the copyright holder.

Trust the Teapot

Tea vendors: We give your teas a fair review always!
Tea drinkers: No pulling punches here. You see the good and the bad!