Monday, March 30, 2009

Nurturing Health With 1988 Puerh

One whizzed through Darjeeling in a matter of days, there seemed to be a limitless number of wonderful estates to tour. You could really spend a few months here and not have hit them all.
One thought about the possibility of hitting some famous tea areas in the south as well as some in Nepal. But after being infected with a bad case of amoebic dysentery and spending a few days in an unhygienic hospital in Agra, it was time to end ones travels.

Recovery was undoubtedly assisted by the consumption of lots of fresh fruit, vegetables, yogurt, old puerh, and quality hwang cha (Korean semi-oxidized tea). Ones oldish stash of peurh took a big hit last time one stomach got a bit shaky in November of last year. Digging through some boxes one unearthed a sample sent by Toki, an 88 shang puerh from the Tea Gallery- the perfect thing to rehabilitate a recovering digestive system.

Upon opening the esthetically pleasing white sample pack, dark leaves showing age revealed an odour of oak, deep dry cherries, and healthy nitrogen rich top soil. These leaves are dropped into ones new large yixing pot (more on that one later) and hot water follows. Rinse.

Early in the session comes deep rich soil flavoring with undercurrents of honey in watery liquid. Soft tobacco occasionally nudges its way into the profile before quickly dropping off. After a number of potfulls are consumed the depth of the tea really expands resulting in a dance between rich soil and subtle sweetness. This dance of nuances plays out in the theater of a mouthfeel that is full and coating. The lips are sometimes left numb, the tongue gently hairy by waves of astringency that evolves into sweetness left on the breath.

The energy of this tea first stimulates ones stomach warming it. Later infusions ease off and surrender, the transfer of energy is wonderful.

This session is strung out for days over great conversations with family and friends and lazy dogs that would surely make Toki proud. Its mouthfeel hardly wavers allowing it to feel complete even into late infusions. Overall, it is quite a solid puerh and in the end, along with doses of Korea yellow tea and lots of yogurt, ones stomach is nurtured back to health.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Touring Darjeeling: The Darjeeling Planters Club

After visiting Giddapahar tea estate it was late in the afternoon. We grabbed a bite to eat at a restaurant that overlooked the tea fields in Kurseong. There Mr. Lochan suggested we stay at the historical Darjeeling Planters club, a 150 year old building that overlooked Darjeeling. What a perfect place to rest after a tea filled day.

The old colonial building was once a gathering place for the very first English tea planters in the area which established a gentlemen’s club in 1868. In the aging building not much has changed. The lobby in the front is adorned with antique cannons. The billiard room has tiger skins dangling beside black and white old boy club shots, on faded walls.

Not much has changed in the rooms either. The furnishings are rundown, authentic pieces from ages ago. And at exactly 7:00 PM an old man, seemingly as old as the place, will come in and start a fire in the large fireplace beside the bed.

Sipping on a cup of Darjeeling orange pekoe by the night fire, pen in hand, is the way Darjeeling was truly meant to be enjoyed.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Touring Darjeeling: Proper Darjeeling Orange Pekoe Tea At Giddapahar Tea Estate

After Goomtee we made our way back to Kurseong and, along the way, we stopped at Giddapahar tea estate to take a look at their gardens and production facilities.

Mr. Lochan walked us through production at the facility. The very first leaves picked this season were wilting in the wilting troughs. The smell and sight was quite pleasing. We walked through the factory as Mr. Lochan explained how minute details in the production of tea here has changed as newer and time friendly techniques and machinery has replaced the old. While he was saying this, an old Indian lady was sifting newly processed leaves by hand using an old traditional bamboo sifter.

From the production facility we went into a cozy cottage-like building where we were served tea in a fancy, hand painted, white porcelain, English style tea set. The orange pekoe from last year was fragrantly delicious. True to Mr. Lochan’s site which describes the tea from Giddapahar as “delicate owing to the lower temperatures and being covered by mist for much of the year forcing the bushes to grow slowly producing a fine bouquet with great aromatic quality and delicate floral nose.”

The tea was only to be overshadowed by the delicious traditional Indian cakes and cookies that accompanied this tea. Some of which were coated in decadent gold foil and others silver.

One left the Giddapahar estate smiling, feeling perhaps more buzzed off the sweets than the tea.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Touring Darjeeling: Tasting The First Darjeeling Teas Of 2009 In The Goomtee Tea Estate

One was picked up from the train station by Rajiv Lochan, of Lochan Tea. After morning tea and breakfast with his family, we were off to the area around Kurseong. As we climbed the winding road to Darjeeling, tea fields began to dominate the mountain sides along with tinny train tracks.

Our first stop was the famous Goomtee tea estate established in 1899. Its tea bushes lay low along the mountain side while its production facility, over 2000 meters above sea level, sat stately overlooking the maintained tea growth. The buildings outer walls were decorated by ancient symbols and paintings of the Buddha with labels in English. Inside, one went through the production method with S.S. Rowat, the manager of the estate.

One could blog on and on about Goomtee’s history, gardens, product, and production methods but why reinvent the wheel. Goomtee has an amazing web site which outlines all this and much more is such detail, please do click on this link and snoop around for a while. The site is a real gem.

Actually, we didn’t even get through the tour of the facility. Mr. Rowat became a bit sidetracked, and for good reason. While he was walking us through old rooms and massive machinery used to produce Goomtee’s quality product, the first cupping on the very first day of first flush tea picked for the 2009 season was commencing. Basically, we just took a B-line right to the tasting of the tea- tea that was produced just hours before.

We sipped from large cups of classic Darjeeling green and a rather fancy Darjeeling white. We sipped, pondered, shared our options, and sipped more. This infant tea, like others consumed hours after production, has a certain kind of taste, a taste of youth that all greens seem to carry for just hours after production. Mr. Rowat said that this taste is the ‘fire’ that remains in the leaf for a few hours after production but latter dissipates. This ‘fire’ also seems to affect the qi. The initial qi possesses a youthful energy that always hits the stomach hard, another characteristic of all recently produced green tea. These tastes and feelings from drinking such young tea reminded one of sipping recently fired tea beside the cauldron in Handong, South Korea. There is something about this experience that is almost spiritual, a celebrated birth of tea.

Mr. Rowat mentioned that the tea here in Darjeeling is so sought after that it sells before it is even picked. He mentioned how the first flush white tea will go to a German tea company this year that is egger to have this wonderful spring delight before Easter. He said that they purchased it without even tasting a sample of this year’s product. Apparently, due to the overly dry conditions in Darjeeling, this year’s first flushes won’t be as good as the last few years (but still amazing when compared to other teas) but that the second flush should be of the highest quality. They can apparently determine this all from the weather conditions.

Viewing the fields below, one sipped these fresh samples with a big smile and found no fault in them.


Monday, March 23, 2009

Tea In Thailand

Yes, its true, Thais are playing catch-up with some of its neighbours and is churning out some tea. The main tea area of Thailand seems to be in the mountainous areas and Northern provinces around the heavily populated Northern city of Chiang Mai.

Apparently, the drive to produce tea is influenced by the migrating hill tribes but more so by highly educated, entrepreneurial Thais. Even the Thai government has given support to these new exciting ventures as evidence from a Thai anniversary puerh cake that commemorated the kings 60th year of rule in 2006 that one had stumbled upon.

It was the only Thai puerh cake one came across, apparently a first time attempt. Almost all the tea produced in Thailand is organic oolong, produced by cutting edge machinery, not by hand. These teas are marketed to well-to-do Thais (and foreigners) who perhaps are looking for an alternative to the famous, sugary, traditional concoction of Thai tea.

One never got a chance to try the tea nor go up North to see the plantations and production facilities. This left one quite curious about tea produced in Thailand. Do you readers have any experiences with tea from Thailand?


Sunday, March 22, 2009

Tea In Laos Part Six: Tea And Coffee, Friends At Last

It is amazing how tea production in Laos is inextricably tied to the coffee industry on the Boleven Plateau. This is perhaps most apparent in the gardens and fields that line the roads on the Bolaven Plateau. Besides the flourishing rubber plantations, there are also thousands of coffee plants that fill the fields here. The tea plants that are found are usually mixed right in with the coffee plants. Often there seems to be little logic as to why the plants are growing where they are growing. There seems to be a natural fluidity, a peace, between the coffee and tea plants grown here…

As the guide’s old Suzuki 4X4 rumbled up rough roads past peaceful fields of neighborly coffee and tea bushes, he pulled his jeep in front of Paksong Tea Product’s tea production facility. A friendly man emerged from the shinny new, open-air building to show us around and explain how tea is grown and produced in Paksong.

First, he showed us the walls filled with nylon sacks of black, oolong, and some green teas all produced in this facility. We then checked out some of the machines used in production of the black and oolong teas. There was a guest speaker delivering a speech to village reps about how to maintain organic farming practices- a welcome sign. Out back we witnessed the production of green tea which was all done by hand. The aroma of leaves drying over wood burning stoves filled the air.

The guide explained how this is a grassroots village project involves buying high quality tea from the small gardens of locals. He explained how the locals only use the organic compost produced here as he pointed at large heaps under black tarp. The special compost, he contends, is what gives Paksong tea its distinct taste. We could see the composting in action as men chopped up old coffee plants and other local vegetation. The guide also told us the secret of the compost mixture, lifting the tarp back. He said that most of the matter is actually the unused shell from coffee beans.

Latter as one sipped some tea in the soon to be cupping and taste-testing room of the new facility, one couldn’t seem to override the underlying coffee nuances in the freshly brewed tea. Who would have thought coffee and tea could be such close friends?


Saturday, March 21, 2009

Tea In Laos Part Five: French Colonialism, American Bombardments, And The Origin Of Tea In The Southern Laos Province Of Champasak

The story of tea in Northern Laos is at least partly influenced by migrating Chinese. The story of tea in Southern Laos is quite literally the work of the colonialist French.

It all started back in the early 1900s when the French deemed the area know as the Bolaven Plateau in Southern Province of Champask a perfect fertile ground for planting lucrative crops. At around 1300 meters above sea level the French started planting coffee, rubber trees, bananas, and tea on the cool, high, flatlands of the plateau.

It was coffee, not tea, that stole the show here. The Arabic Typica that was shipped home was famously touted as "The Champagne of Coffee" all the while a few small tea crops were being modestly harvested in the shadow of Laos world renowned coffee. Many of the initial French planters fled with the French during Laos independence following WWII in the 1950s. With the land in the hands of Laos people, there was big plans for this booming region and famous coffee.

Unfortunately, the production of Laos coffee came to an abrupt halt in 1967. Because of its strategic importance to both the Viet Cong and the USA it because a ground of war not coffee or tea. It was almost carpet-bombed right off the map by US bombardments meant to stifle Viet Cong advances South. Following the war there was a period of rebuilding and clearing unexploded ordinances which, to this day, pose a legitimate threat to those who farm on the plateau. The tea and coffee bushes, a hardy bunch, managed to survive the ravages of war.

It took decades for this region to regain its lost glory, but slowly, starting in the 1990s big coffee companies operating large plantations moved in and people started to take notice once more. But if you visit the plateau town of Paksong, you find out quite quickly that the common people, not the big corporations, are the driving force behind the coffee movement here. And riding modestly on all this hype is Paksong's delicious green tea.

It seems like on every street there are long homemade mats overflowing with fresh picked coffee drying in the open air. If, by chance, you take a peek into an old open air concrete structure in the center of town, Paksong Market, you will likely find, modestly situated between famous Arabic Typica, Arabica, and Robusta, large clear plastic bags of green tea.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Tea In Laos Part Four: Some Brief Tasting Notes on Phongsali Green Tea

After returning to one's room in Phongsali, one decided to wind down with some tea.

First one attempted to sample some of the 400 year old green tea from Korman Village. This tea was 'dead tea'. It lacked taste as it did smell and was probably inappropriately stored for months, if not years. It was almost tasteless but showed no signs of bitterness just mild, watery taste.

Out of all the tea one has ever consumed, this tea was perhaps the hardest to enjoy. Maybe because the empty profile of this tea could have been prevented if these leaves had been properly processed and stored. One parted with this large bag of tea leaving it with the staff of the guesthouse.

With the thoughts of the qi-less tea still fresh in ones mind, one decided to give the healthy robust looking leaves of the complimentary Phongsali tea that was in the room a go. They couldn't possibly be as bad as the tea one had just sampled minutes before.

So one unscrewed the warn, old plastic red lid of this overused, glass, cylindrical container and dropped a few health leaves into the festively patterned glass.

The dry leaves smelt of musty sweet floral. A promising sign.

Hot water from a beaten up, old aluminium thermos is poured into the glass, embracing the leaves of various colours of browns and greens still clinging to stems.

One waits a while then gently blows the floating unfurrowing leaves, making a path in which to sip the liquid from the glass.

The sweet result embraces the mouth leaving behind nearly no astringency but a pleasant musty, foggy, earthy-floral aftertaste. The taste isn't strong but carries a certain gentleness to it.
The flavour of this tea is true to its home. It tastes similar to the way the earthy-musty fog smelt in the village of Korman just hours ago. When one drinks this tea one is back there- high in the mountains in the foggy tribal village once again.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Tea In Laos Part 3: Phongsali Production & Product

*continued from last entry...

When we finally arrived in Korman village of the Phounoy hill tribe people we threw ourselves onto a bamboo woven porch and ate a traditional meal of sticky rice and other fruits and nuts. We ate in the company of dogs, ducks, chickens, and hundred year old tea trees, but no towns people could be spotted as they were busy in the fields, most likely the tea fields. When we made our way into the village we heard many labours singing tranquil songs, songs of a hundred years ago, as the worked to mainly clear debris and other growth from the tea fields- the work of the dry season. Although we could hear their happy working songs, more often than not we couldn't actually see them working through the blinding fog.

Even now in the village, the fog was not letting up. The more one thought about it, the more one started to think that we might not be in fog, but might instead be in the clouds. This was actually a legitimate possibility as Korman village was located over 1500 meters above sea level.

After finishing a well deserved meal we walked the village to admire the town and tea. We stumbled into an old man on the porch of his stilted house that backed onto a steep drop off. Majestically old tea trees and bamboo shoots seemed to reach toward the wood structure, supporting it.

The old man made small talk with the guide then one made the inquiry whither one could obtain some tea from a local villager. The old men beamed as he seemed to understand what one said to the guide-cum-translator.

The old man reached for a large sack that was untied leaning up against the wall of his house. He offered to sell some. After giving the dark, blackish green tea leaves an inspection, one didn't particularly find it that appealing. The leaves seem to be over processed and stale, very little qi seemed to be left in the leaves and they emitted a dank, salty, seaweed smell that was so faint. One was quite charmed by the old, toothless man that had a glow about him, excited about the possibility of selling tea to someone who hiked all the way to his village from a country far away. So, one asked for just a bit to taste but ended up walking away with more than one wanted. But just costing $2.00 one could hardly say refuse the man's offer.

We wandered the village a bit more before making our journey back to Phongsali. On our way back we hoped to check out one of two tea producing facilities. One was owned by a Malaysian company and the other, Syuen Classic Tea, was owned by a Chinese company. Each company was part of a state and UN sponsored program to provide a profitable alternative to opium production.

We came across the Chinese plant just at the outskirts of Phongsali, actually very close to the government sign pictured in Part One. The guide was awkwardly reluctant as we approached the factory. When we got to the driveway leading up to the factory's entrance, the guide stopped and said this is as close as we could get to the factory. One expressed interest in seeing the production in process as smoke rose lightly from the building's chimney. The guide pointed to the large locks on the doors and said that we couldn't go in. He proudly proclaimed that the tea produced behind those doors is some of the best tea produced in Phongsali. The way he and, later, others spoke about the simple brick facility left one with the feeling that this factory and it's tea was revered here in Phongsali. And so in such reverence we left into the town of Phonsali.

We went into the market in search of a container for the green tea that was purchased from Korman. The market was a simple affair with long wood tables set up in a large sheltered building. Food was laid out on small section of the table, fresh fruit, vegetables and even strange meats mingled together, the smell was unreal. On at least one section of each long table was a pile of tea. The tea for sale in the market was different than what one had seen before in Phongsali, in fact it looked a lot like a type of tea that originated in China.

The tea in the market was called 'smoked' or 'baked' green tea by the locals. It was produced by packing tea leaves into a shoot of bamboo where it was left for up to one month. The tea was then baked in a stove before being removed from the bamboo and bound in groups of four by thin strips of bamboo leaves.

This tea wasn't at all a 'special' Phongsali way of producing tea but seemed to be identical to a method that the Chinese developed years before (one can't recall the name of this type of bamboo tea produced in China... if any readers could help one's memory that would be great).
This type of tea is apparently the way most hill tribe peoples produce tea. It is the cheapest tea here and is generally consumed by those who cannot afford the green tea which is preferred by the locals. The way of producing tea in bamboo in this manner likely traveled with the flow of hill tribe people from the Yunnan Province of China as the people migrated further south into Laos.

One picked through these stacks of 'smoked' tea. Some of them smelt of other food or spices, likely absorbed from poor storage, others stacks seemed rather odourless, while others smelt of deep rick tobacco. Despite the difference in apparent quality, they all sold for the same price- four rolls for 60 kip ( $7.00 USD).

Tired from hiking, one found a container and sauntered back to ones guesthouse to enjoy some tea.