Friday, February 16, 2018

Assam Teahaus orthodox black tea review


I mentioned meeting a local online friend here in Bangkok awhile back, Sasha Abramovich, and he passed on this tea to try.  It's another Assam version, from a relatively new producer I've heard of but hadn't tried tea from.

I'll cite more from discussion with that vendor and producer at the end, but the prior Assam producer themes repeat.  They're ramping up orthodox tea processing quality level, and branching out into exploring different distribution options, with fair trade and sustainability issues as background.

that tea


Sasha!


it's the one on the right, Assam Orthodox


Review


The tea is nice.  I have to recalibrate a little to get back to expecting an Assam profile versus the Chinese black tea range I've been on but this is actually sort of in the middle style-wise anyway.

I'm not always clear on parameters but that may help explain what I mean related to the infusion transitions in this case.  I'm brewing the tea completely Western style, in a standard proportion, using boiling point water (or at least near it; it's easy to lose a little temperature along the way, even related to a factor like not pre-warming a device).  I'm brewing around 4 grams of tea (a lot, to some, but for me using 1 1/2 times that much sometimes comes up, if the intention is to use multiple shorter infusions), to prepare a full mug of water, probably slightly over 8 ounces (on the order of 250 ml).  I tend to like to make three infusions of tea brewed between 2 1/2 and 4 minutes made that way using black tea leaves, adjusting timing and count for leaf type, and for what I feel like drinking just then.

If someone only considers using 2-3 grams worth of tea and a cup of water as Western style brewing then this is a hybrid style instead, but to me variation within proportion still fits under that category.  Either way, what's in a brewing-process name.


The taste in the profile includes malt but it's not as pronounced as in most Assam versions, not really dominant.  The general character is softer, more complex, and richer.  It's still not exactly like a Chinese black tea, even though that is a little towards a standard Chinese black aspects set from what I've tried of Assam.  Those mostly exhibit malt first, and everything else is secondary.  Some varied versions included more fruit (citrus) and mild pine-like flavor, and this isn't completely different, just not exactly either.  A flavors list might help.

I'm noticing some malt and pine, balanced as the two main elements, but not dominant.  There is plenty of sweetness, not necessarily easy to place, not clearly tied to a fruit flavor, and not paired with a separate standard taste range like cocoa or toffee either.  It's just a little sweet.  The softness stands out as much as anything else; the feel is full but the overall effect is soft.  The tea comes across as richer than it seems that flavors list would; it's not dry or rough at all, a bit full instead.  The flavor is generally clean, but some other woody tone drifts slightly into a trace of fresh cardboard, which overlaps with the pine aspect.






It's interesting the way that all comes together.  It does taste like a very soft, sweet, complex version of an Assam, but towards that other range so much that it's not typical of others I've tried.  It's good tea, but "good" is relative, and it would depend on preference match how good.  More than that wood / clean cardboard throwing the flavor off trading out the typical yam, roasted sweet potato, cocoa, and toffee in different Chinese black teas for pine and malt is a potential drawback.  The complexity is good, and the feel is full enough, it's more a matter if it matches what someone likes.  The touch of citrus in some other Assam, and often present in Darjeeling, might work really well in this, but it's not one of the aspects expressed in this version.


That softness works well but for some others just a little more edge might give it better balance.  To me it's one more nice way that black teas can be, but that is a judgment call.  If someone loves Assams but finds the malt a bit much and has trouble finding one smooth enough this tea could be perfect.  Different people could miss the edge, or just prefer the other flavor aspect range more common to other tea types instead.

The second infusion is similar to the first, just faded slightly.


It almost goes without saying, and it's repetitive since I've already said it, but "malt" tends to be used in a range of different senses.  Malt in ovaltine or malted milk milkshakes, or Whoppers, is smooth and sweet, like a transitioned and sweetened form of mild grain (what that is, I think).  This malt is closer to a slightly dry mineral tone, with some overlap in the two, but also a little like rust.  That's also where it "meets" the pine aspect, which is in between pine needles (maybe red pine, to put a tree to that) and pine cones.


So, long story short, I liked the tea.  I'd be happy to drink lots of this as a daily drinker, and it's complex, balanced, and unique enough to appreciate for what it is on a different level than that, as a new experience.  It's not quite on the level of the best second flush and autumn flush Darjeelings I've tried, where the outstanding uniqueness, clean profile, novel aspect range, great balance, etc. make those stand out from all other black teas.  Per my preferences it's as good as more typical upper-medium quality range Darjeeling, which is quite an accomplishment, just much different in character.


Vendor profile, more on Assam Orthodox tea and Maddhurjya Gogoi


I had talked to that tea producer before, (Maddhurjya Gogoi, who Sasha actually met visiting Assam), just never connecting relating to trying a tea version.  We talked again and he provided more input about his business and company theme.  This Youtube video is a personal and business profile of sorts, with the rest here a text version in his own words.  As for contacts he's on Facebook, with another business page there, and a website contact here.


The rest is in his words, background on him and his business from discussion.  This runs a little longer than I usually cite from discussion with people but to me the personal story is interesting, and it highlights how deeper issues play out related to Assam tea production transitioning from one more limited process to a range of others.




That Tea is from November 2017.  I want to focus more on quality tea manufacturing from different varietals we cultivate in our small Tea Farm CHAH BARI: GOGOI & SONS (on Google Maps here).  My younger brother & I inherited this small Tea Farm CHAH BARI after our Father. It's about five acres.

Our Father was diagnosed with colon cancer back in 1994. It was a real hard blow in our family, and we were so broke with his expensive treatment that we could not take care of our small Tea Farm the conventional way with proper input of Chemical fertilizers, pesticides etc.

Actually his cancer was a blessing in disguise. Otherwise we would never know about Organic Cultivation.  Father was asked by the doctor to take Green Tea as a supporting medicine. In 1994/95 no one knew about Green Tea. So as expected, our Father use to get inside of his Tea Farm in the morning or daytime and chew some fresh Tea leaves as Green Tea.

Then on his check ups in 1997 the same doctor gave him few small packets if Chinese Green Tea.  Then only we all came to realize that there are different tea apart from our regular CTC Teas.  So we did many trial and error steps to process our fresh tea leaves in to drinkable Green Tea...

In 2007 I visited Japan and South Korea as a member of an Indian Business Delegation.  It was FOODEX2007 in Tokyo, where I gave my Green Tea to few Japanese and Chinese Tea merchant. To my surprise, they appreciated my efforts and one Japanese fellow ordered 60 kilograms of our Green Tea as a first initial order, which I couldn't execute.

Many years passed and I too closed my Entrepreneurship in Tea.  I become a Stock Broker and lived a happy life.  But during early 2013 my father convinced me that I should do something for our own fellow farmers and for our society since I am lucky to be exposed to the world, and I had experienced possibilities.

So in 2014 I travelled for three months  in Europe with my Teas again. And what a response!!!
I sold my Black Tea in Germany for 60 Euro a kilogram.  That was the turning point. I studied Export Management, having always wanted to be an exporter.  Then in March 2015 I went to Taiwan in search of Small Tea machinery.

Again in October 2015 I got the opportunity to visit Xiamen Tea Fair.  As I said earlier I am really blessed that I could travel far and wide despite I belong to middle class family background...  Then again in 2016 I joined Shana Zhang's ITA for a Tea sommelier course.  

Now I am fully focused on Tea and Organic Sustainable Farming practices. Our business is very small but I am highly focused and now share my experience and knowledge with my fellow Tea Farmers in different parts of Assam. People invite me to Tea workshops and I train them on ethical Farming to get rid of Chemical dependency.  This year I hope to process few hundred kilograms of quality Tea from our own small Farm.  My younger brother is my right hand and we are both continuously involved in the empowerment of Small Farmers and those marginal Tea Garden labourers. We are paying 20% extra wages to our partners (workers).

With our best efforts, we are trying to promote some best Teas locally and globally as well. I am confident that within this year I can double the wage of our partners and stop Tea slavery in our small Tea Farm.



Sasha and Nok visiting Maddhurjya (credit his FB page


Interesting, to me at least.  It's nice to get to mention Shana's training business (International Tea Academy), since she's the owner of the FB tea group I'm an admin for, International Tea Talk.  I've never had much direct contact with that training but one of my favorite online tea friends and producers shared having generally positive experience with it too.


The health claims part stands out, doesn't it?  I wouldn't be quick to accept that green tea is a cure for cancer but I'm guessing that lots of kinds of tea are very healthy, even if sorting that out through research evidence findings is problematic.  Using organic and sustainable farming practices also sounds good.  And the tea is nice, still within the range of better Assam versions I've tried, but it's always interesting trying varied styles.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Growing tea plants at home


The subject keeps coming up:  can I grow tea plants at home, and if so can I process them into tea I could drink?  I was asking the same thing myself awhile back, I just never did get around to finding those plants and getting it done.  I live in Bangkok, so I'd be looking into plants that are ok with quite warm weather instead of cold, but the concerns seem similar.

I never did get around to writing about the subject; not having followed up there wasn't that much to say.  Looking back I that was in 2013, right around the time this blog started, and I was a lot less chatty and diverse in tea writing back then. 

Back then I discussed it a little with a nursery (Camellia Forest Nursery, in North Carolina), a business that sells tea plants in the US.  They're one of the main plant sources that comes up in discussion, to the limited extent I run across that.  They mentioned this advice related to growing tea plants in hot weather climates (like Bangkok), or indoors versus outdoors:


home based tea plant garden in Mexico (related story)


Tea in general will tolerate high temperatures as long as it gets water.  They do need a cooler period in the winter as they go dormant for a while.  There are tea plantations in warm areas of China and Vietnam...


...For growing tea indoors, again they like cooler temperatures and high humidity during the winter so a hot dry house sometimes is stressful for the plant.  If you have a cool sunroom they will do well indoors.


We have a couple of nice, small garden areas at the house I live in, even though we're in the city.


at the house; we could clear a space for some plants out there


Online references:  a source for plants and tea growing group



The Camellia Forest Nursery website sells different related types of plants (other decorative Camellias and other plants), with a section on Camellia Sinensis (tea!).  It includes an overview of processed types, and a separate website on growing and producing tea (and a Facebook page).  It wouldn't be remarkably simple, getting the right version of the plants to thrive under local conditions, and then picking and processing leaves into good quality finished tea, but having a go at it wouldn't seem that impossible either. 

A second interesting reference is a Facebook group about growing tea in the US, Let's Grow Tea.  The group focus is really more about small producers helping each other share information, rather than for people with a few plants growing in a greenhouse themed room in their house, but even just paging through discussions would turn up good information related to common issues.  And the group members seem nice.


Wonosari plantation in East Java, Indonesia, from visiting in 2016



Input from David Parks, Camellia Forest Nursery co-owner


Those nursery website pages go through lots of detail, on different types of Camellia Sinensis plants, and on growing zones and specific plant weather tolerances.  It seems to be most of what someone would need to know related to if it would be practical or not.


camellia japonica version (credit Camellia Forest FB page)


From there other levels of concerns would crop up, related to growing inside versus outside, watering, nutrition, and pest issues, harvesting leaves, and especially related to actually processing tea.  It would seem highly impractical to actually try to produce substantial amounts of tea, even if someone did happen to live in a suitable US environment (to the South), but of course that wouldn't generally be the point.  What tea enthusiast wouldn't want to add some plants around their house that could actually produce tea to drink?  Even if is difficult, and recreating a favorite Wuyi Yancha or pu'er wouldn't be practical.



I asked the owners of the Camellia Forest Nursery if they could fill in more details, and David was kind enough to summarize some thoughts related to trends in that actually happening and related background, as follows.


The interest in tea over the last 30 years has grown from a few individuals and a handful of nurseries to a general interest in tea and tea potentially being sold in big box stores. There are even some nurseries that sell only tea plants but I saw in a large nursery R+D department that they are experimenting with tea that would be marketed to big box stores as a premade hedge. We have gone from selling a few dozen plants to thousands of tea plants-the nursery has grown ten fold also.

In general, people do enjoy the tea made from their own plants. They find it is very different from typical bagged tea but are pleasantly surprised. There are cases of people using mature leaves or even the dead leaves with rather poor success.

Since we are a mail order nursery we get requests from all over the country even locations that are too cold for growing tea. So many people try growing it indoors. The success varies but it can be done. Although actual production will probably be limited unless one is experienced growing plants to get good growth without getting too big a plant for a pot. Moving the plant outdoors in the summer and indoors in the winter is probably the best option. People also have success in small or large greenhouses. One customer grows tea in a polyhouse in Michigan.


USDA plant hardiness zone map (credit USDA site)



This year was a cold hardiness test for tea in North Carolina. We had one night when the temperature dropped to 3 F and almost 2 weeks of temperatures below freezing. So far most looks OK and even tender varieties are expected to regrow from the roots. One issue we see is that harvested tea will keep growing into the fall and not harden off so the top leaves of many bushes are completely brown but lower leaves look green. Although not attractive I believe this does not hurt the plants and we will prune off these leaves very soon in preparation for the new flush in spring. Surprisingly some varieties like Sochi appear almost unhurt. Other varieties that look good include small leaf tea, 'Dave's Fave', and Lipton Plantation.


Camellia Forest nursery photo from a 2013 ice storm (credit their FB page)



Snow actually protects plants although it can splay out tea branches if it is very heavy snow. It is the low temperatures that seem to damage tea the most. From reports I have gotten from customers Sochi tea does appear to be one of the hardiest. It comes from tea plantations around the black sea in Russia. My Korean strain and small leaf tea have also been hardy strains and the best variety has not been clear.


Some of those last parts overlap with a story about trying North Korean tea, and about how they were able to produce that there.

All of this encourages me to renew my own efforts to track down tea plants here.  Thailand produces tea, so I only need to go to the North and I can visit plantations up there.  And Bangkok is a big place, with a little bit of everything around; most likely tea plants are also here.


Nursery open house announcement (details here)


Saturday, February 10, 2018

Vietnamese maocha, a version of loose sheng


Geoff, visiting Bangkok, with Nguyen Thu Ngoc, the Hatvala co-founder


I met Geoff Hopkins not so long ago, one of the owners of Hatvala Tea.  It's been great discussing tea related issues with on International Tea Talk (a FB group I'm an admin for), and great to finally meet him. 

Hatvala is my favorite Vietnamese tea vendor.  They source small-producer limited production scope teas in different places, and this version he gave me a sample of they don't actually sell yet, but probably will.  For purposes here that doesn't matter so much; I'll pass on what I think of it.  And mention there's more about him in this profile article, in case that's of interest, with content in that article related to more traditional agricultural practices, which I'll go into more after a review.


I've been drinking a good bit of sheng pu'er over the last half a year so it should be easy to place.  Oddly although you can't call this tea pu'er, since that's a region-defined term, it might still work to call it sheng.  Or maybe not; "sheng-pu'er-like tea" might be the politically correct expression, or maocha still works.  Maocha means two different things, typically, either unfinished tea (eg. a roasted style oolong that's not yet completely sorted or finished roasting), or to a loose sheng, which is as finished as it's going to be, often except for being pressed into a cake / bing or other shape.







Review:


It's definitely sheng (or "sheng-pu'er-style" tea).  Northern Vietnamese snow teas also remind me a little of sheng, and I tried more of some of one that friend (Huyen) gave me over the past weekend, but this is exactly that type, not just a little like it.  There's a bit of that characteristic bitterness, which I've come to like when balanced properly with other aspects, versus not really being able to relate to it two or three years ago.  That aspect is paired with a pronounced mineral range, and the sweetness and other flavor is expressed as floral, per my interpretation.  A bit of warmth couples with the mineral tone, along the lines of Southwestern US desert slickrock versus flint or limestone, or maybe even the richer mineral tone from an artesian well source, or well-rusted iron.  More rounds will make it easier to pick up all that's going on.  This type of tea tends to transition most over the first few infusions, and in some cases quite a bit later as well.

The sweetness picks up a little in the second round, and I suppose the general intensity too, even for using a really fast infusion time.  I'm keeping the proportion fairly high even for Gongfu brewing, and using boiling point water, which I regard as a relatively standard approach.  It's conceivable that one might moderate astringency using lower temperature water but it's my impression that it would mute the flavors, and varying infusion strength works better.  On this second round the brightness picks up, so that the hint of warmer mineral evolves from the dryer mineral tone and floral just a little towards fruit.  I'm definitely not saying the tea tastes fruity, just that it's picking up aspect range and complexity that's hard to completely pin down that extends those others in that direction.  It's like just hint of juicyfruit gum flavor, not so pronounced that it's a main flavor aspect, but it's still there.




The tea only makes a slight additional similar transition on the third infusion.  Brewed really lightly it's very pleasant, full flavored, rich in feel, bright and intense.  The sweetness, lighter input of bitterness, mineral tones, and the rest all balances nicely.  Before I would question what this kind of tea might be like in a year or two, how those flavors might evolve and improve, but now I'm a little bit more inclined to think it's fine as it is.  That would be interesting as an academic pursuit, to see what happens, but only if coupled with drinking a good bit of it as it is now since it's already nice. 

I suppose this still isn't a set of aspects that comprises my absolute favorite range or combined experience but I do like the tea.  Other tea types aren't bright, fresh, and complex in the same way, and the feel and aftertaste are different.  I'll let it go just a little longer on the next infusion, more like 20 seconds, to see how that shifts things, although it seems easy enough to guess how that would go.

What I expected;  the bitterness plays a bigger role at the higher infusion strength, and the thickness and aftertaste ramp up.  A minute later after swallowing the experience of the tea is fading but far from gone.  The extra intensity is interesting but the balance isn't quite as favorable, per my preferences. 




The flavor is complex enough that different people would surely have very different takes on what is going on with it.  That could just be a complexity of floral range coming across, but to me that light fruit flavor aspect leans more towards roasted pear.  The warmth I'm calling mineral could be pegged as spice instead, although narrowing down which or a range is tricky.  I'd go with a mild root spice but it's not completely unlike cardamom.




The flavor keeps evolving towards being slightly softer and warmer.  It would be interesting to try this exact same tea stored for a year or two to see that transition further due to that influence.

I accidentally left an infusion sit for well over a minute, messing with something online.  It's interesting how that comes across; the bitterness really is intense at way over a normal infused strength.



Tea history, sustainable growth, and other related teas


Nice tea!  There's lots more I could say about placing it related to others I've tried, about aging potential, or about other relatively local regional teas.  I've been giving lots of thought to quality variation in sheng pu'er and how particular aspects relate to aging potential but another draft of a post covers more on that.

On the other subject, I just watched a nice TED-X video about "wild" teas from Thailand (at 2:06 here).  That's more a Northern Thailand vendor's development project that extends a very long tea tradition to trying to increase existing tea tree originated production to reduce cutting down forests for other agriculture.  It's hard to argue against that being a good idea. 

One part that might not be familiar is that eating fermented tea was part of an old Thai tradition, probably more familiar related to laphet in Myanmar, but also a custom in Thailand, referred to as miang instead.  I don't agree with everything Kenneth (of Monsoon tea, that speaker) said in the summary history about past tea production but it's splitting hairs to point out a secondary implication that may not hold up to review.  It really doesn't matter if tea plants were in Thailand 2000 years ago or 4000, or earlier, or if they probably spanned a broad range naturally or were brought by people instead.  All that is a bit academic. 

If someone is interested, this is an interesting paper on the history of tea, and also this study of genetic diversity of Assamica plants in China goes into the plants history a little.  That history will keep changing as genetic studies and other evidence comes to light, but as I see it that's all completely separate from an interest in exploring modern teas.


Other reviews here in the past have covered region-local teas with related history, some more similar in type to what I just reviewed than others, as follows:


Dhara white wild Northern Thai white tea, from Monsoon (from the same vendor that presented, but a white tea, not "sheng" style)

Myanmar old tree sheng pu'er-style tea from Tea Side

Kinnari Tea Laos loose sheng-pu'er-like tea

Vietnamese snow tea (Ha Giang province green tea)  (a completely different style, but the commonality is interesting)