Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Comparison tasting golden tips teas from Nepal, Darjeeling, and Laos

I happened to have three similar buds-only or mostly-buds black teas from three different countries, different versions of golden tips, so I compared them.  Two of them including some fine leaf material, or buds developing into leaves--and one not--is an inconsistency, but then lots of variables could change the results, and they're not supposed to be completely identical.  The point is only to compare similar teas, to taste how final results stand in the cup.  I tried a vaguely related black tea from Sri Lanka not so long ago but didn't have any on hand; probably as well since three teas is enough, and stylistic variations beyond origin differences are already problematic enough.

It's unconventional to compare teas from three different suppliers, stemming from the marketing function blog reviews serve.  This blog was never supposed to be advertising, that function and discussing tea just happen to overlap.  That makes for a good placement to mention that all three of these teas were contributed by the suppliers for the purpose of review.

In general I only review teas I like, since those are most interesting, although in discussing that scope with suppliers I'm clear on reserving the right to publicly express what I really think about any of the teas.  I suppose if a tea were bad in a really interesting way that could work for a post, like reviewing a ridiculously smoky lapsang souchong recently, perhaps due to chemical treatment instead of smoking.  That tea wasn't provided by the supplier; I bought it.  Typically suppliers provide nicer teas for review, so the most frequent concern is describing when preferences don't match a style, more so than for teas being bad or mediocre.  On to it then.

Himalayan Tea Shop golden tips (Nepal tea)

Rohini (Darjeeling) golden tips

Kinnari Tea Laos golden tips (Golden Flame)

The teas, and background

I've already reviewed one of these, a Kinnari Tea Laos Golden Flame (golden tips).  It's good.  The point here is to compare that to two others, a Golden Tips from Rohini Estate, a Darjeeling, and from a private vendor reselling teas from Nepal, the Himalayan Tea Shop.  Maybe interesting similarities and differences will turn up, for example comparison of region related (terroir) aspects.  Of course terroir can also refer to other things, to the effect of the specific micro-climate (eg. amount of direct sun, effect of fog), or the minerals in that particular soil, or to effects from other plants growing nearby.  A more experienced reviewer could say more about trueness-to-type, matching a typical range, than I'm going to here.

The Nepal vendor I'd mentioned in this post reviewing a green tea (a decent green tea at that).  That vendor's name is Arpan Khambu, essentially someone with a family business background starting to sell teas internationally on his own, a very small-business model.  That's an interesting back-story, one that would be more familiar for a vendor based somewhere like the US, but those circumstances change sourcing quite a bit.  In the future his business practice may evolve to include more information about the grower, including details about growing conditions (organic claims, etc.), but due to just starting out as of yet the related information that's available is sparse.

Rohini is a major Darjeeling producer, or really a sub-set of Gopaldhara, so there is information about them and their teas on their website.  Not about this particular tea though, since it is likely not a main production version, and that producer sells teas primarily through distributors, with only the main types described there.

I was surprised that Kinnari Teas had developed materials describing the teas in great detail, just not down to grower's photos and Google's coordinates of the farms.  Here is some background on the teas they are working with that I didn't get around to mentioning last time:

All our tea plants are grown from seeds from ancient wild Lao tea trees. These unaltered tea plants are perfectly adapted to their environment, evolved to thrive in this particular microcosm without the need for human intervention. In our highly biodiverse tea gardens, the collaboration of different plants, animals, insects, minerals and microorganisms ensure healthy and rich soils, no pesticides or chemical fertilizers are required. The tea plants’ strong taproots provide them with all the water and nutrients they need, while anchoring the soil on the hillsides. Each garden is a biotope: their cultivation contributes to the protection of the environment in rural Laos.  

Growing tea from seed and artisanal hand-processing also results in less predictable and more complex aromatic characteristics within one single garden and throughout the seasonal harvests. Like with fine organic wine, each harvest and each batch is an adventure and a surprise.

Interesting!  Someone with skeptical inclinations could reject that as less valid than an organic certification but it seems to really not be intended as standing in place of that, just a bit on context.  The part about genetic diversity of plants of course is a real thing, which leads to more questions about the differences between native types of plants grown through natural breeding versus use of clones (controlled breeding).  There's more on the general background related to this particular tea:

Southern China’s Yunnan Province is widely regarded as the cradle of tea, and famous in the west for its excellent black and puer teas. But plants don’t care about borders, and northern Laos’ geographical proximity to Yunnan can be felt in this exceptional tea from Phousan Mountain in Xiengkhouang Province, which echoes the renowned Chinese Dian Hongs...  Upon infusion, the tea releases rich aromatic compounds reminiscent of Yunnan blacks, but with a distinctive elegance.

That mention of Yunnan and Dian Hongs makes perfect sense.  These teas are not that far from versions I've been reviewing in the not so distant past (like this Farmerleaf autumn sun-dried Dian Hong).  

All of this about the Laos and Yunnan origins isn't to imply that Darjeeling and regions in Nepal are giving up a lot related to working with near-ideal high elevation growing conditions, or that great results couldn't be obtained from working with modern tea plant types or species evolved elsewhere.  It's really about the final results, and different good teas can be produced in different places, which is really the whole point of this tasting exercise.


Initial color difference seems to relate to teas including only buds (the Kinnari tea) or fine tea leaves and buds.  That will likely shift flavor profiles a lot, and change the effect of brewing times.  But then it's not science, just a comparison tasting.

The Nepal version (Himalayan Tea Shop; I'll just refer to these by country designation) is nice, darker, sweet smelling as a dry tea, and complex (they all are, really).  The initial taste is in the cocoa range, a bit subtle, sort of malty, but in that softer sense of that flavors range.  Malt is sort of complex anyway, not so definitive, but cocoa and malt describe most of the initial range.  It is nice and clean across that range, with a bit of bright citrus helping the profile.

The Darjeeling version (Rohini, a plantation associated with Gopaldhara, owned by them) is nice too, in a similar range, again malt and cocoa, maybe malt with cocoa versus the other way around.  The mineral structure below that seems to stand out more but it's still quite soft, and definitely not astringent, not even significantly "structured" versus biting, if that makes sense.  It might be the earthiest of the three, pulling a little towards wood tone, maybe even a hint of mushroom, but not in a bad sense, that clean tasting woodiness some wild mushrooms have.

The Laos version (Golden Flame from Kinnari Tea) is more subtle at the same parameters, without addition of some fine leaf content that would allow it to brew out as quickly.  It's more cocoa in the range of chocolate instead, that sweetness extended into those types of richer tones, maybe with a little brighter citrus tone mixed in.  Being more subtle offsets comparison a little; it might make sense to adjust brewing process since it may brew out slower.  I'll go a second infusion at the same times and judge that.

left to right:  Kinnari Tea, Rohini, Nepal tea

On the second infusion the Nepal tea is really nice, that cocoa and malt balancing even better.  Citrus is also there, with some spice tones joining in, close enough to cinnamon.  The sweetness is good and the feel is nice. There is a citrus element, a very light ruby red grapefruit (as a taste only; there is no bite / edge as from even mild grapefruit, just that warm sweet range is there).

The Darjeeling is in a different range, woody, maybe towards cedar, again with cocoa as dominant and plenty of malt (so maybe cocoa even picked up a little).  It's still nice, just different, it trades out citrus and spice for wood tones.  There is a lighter trace of citrus too but a different citrus, more toward bergamot.  The flavors are nice and clean.  It had seemed that woodiness could drift into a less cleaner over-all flavors range but it didn't work out like that.  That hint of wild mushroom transitioned to clean wood tones.

The Laos tea does seem to brew slower, so I'll be tasting it as a milder tea without adjusting to add time.  The proportion could also relate; going just a little heavier would add to the infusion strength.  This tea will probably last longer too, being only buds, or it might transition less later since the other two will see the fine leaves give out while the buds take more time to do that (at a guess).  The flavors are nice, again malt and cocoa (common to all of these), with citrus, and a light woodiness that's not the same as in the Darjeeling version (the Rohini).  That tea is more in the range of cedar, and this is really something that may be more like hay, it just covers the same range.  The last review also mentioned raisin, and between the more dominant cocoa and citrus underlying aspects could be sorted out as fruit, that raisin, or as malt (sweet malt, as in malted milkballs; there's nothing dry or mineral intensive about this tea, the standard pairing with other types of black teas profiles).

The citrus aspect may be the strongest in the Nepal version, or maybe it's that the spice tone adds to that sort of aspect effect, with those two sort of defining a "top" range, of sorts.  It's interesting the way there are so many comparable elements in these three teas playing out slightly differently.

On the third infusion the Nepal tea doesn't change much, maybe just a little nicer.  That cocoa, malt, cinnamon, and citrus integrate well together.  The other "earthy" range is more dark wood than mineral, or just a bit off cedar towards something darker yet, but not at all murky in effect.  The malt sort of has that brightness and complexity it seems to have in very different black teas, just not paired with astringency at all, and with different flavors altogether.  The spice tone (close to cinnamon, but not exactly that) covers range out towards coffee, just a mild version of it, a light roast, I guess.

Rohini plantation (photo credit)

The Darjeeling is moving into a richer, earthier range.  Without trying that Nepal tea just prior it would seem a lot different, brighter in comparison, with some of the same general aspects filling it out (cocoa, malt, citrus).  Due to direct comparison with the Nepal tea just prior a heavy, earthy tone stands out a lot more.  With that comparative bias going it seems a little towards a shou or aged pu'er, that dramatic, but once you adjust to tasting it on it's own it's nothing at all like that, just earthier.

Is all this clear?  It's covering similar cinnamon / coffee complexity range as in the Nepalese tea, just earthier, more centered towards a dark wood, and it seems the difference stands out more than the rest of the common flavors profile--most of what comes across--due to comparing the two teas.  It wouldn't be unusual for someone to attribute that to something else, peat, autumn leaves, mineral range, or something else, but it's clean and integrated, not "off" in any way.  The tea works well.

The Laos tea is more subtle than the others, again with part of that down to brewing parameters issues, trying to brew teas that aren't identical in the same way.  I can taste around that, and let it sit a little longer next time.  As with white teas this seems a little like tasting a silver needle style against a bai mu dan type.  Of course there is less complexity for including one type of thing instead of two (buds versus leaves and buds).  I think I'm biased towards that more complex effect, in general for both types, related to tasting these and for those white teas.  The opposite preference would also make perfect sense; it's subjective.  The tea is great though, as I just reviewed separately.  Cocoa, malt, hay, citrus, and fruit make for a nice profile, and it's quite clean and well presented.  It's possible to ramp up infusion strength different ways with brewing, it's just not possible to add more elements that aren't already there, and those aspects and balance are nice.

On the next infusion the Nepal tea is still similar, picking up just a touch of dark caramel tone.  I would expect it to start tapering off a little from here but who knows.  The Darjeeling version stays clean, with dark wood still pronounced, maybe shifting a little closer to the Nepal version, starting to come across more in between spice and light coffee.  It is a little more earthy than the Nepal tea.  The Laos tea is just hitting it's stride, bright in effect and picking up more complexity, but then it had already been complex.

not so related, but she does love tea

I think I'm liking these teas a lot more for calibrating my expectations to the range more, for appreciating them as a bit subtle (compared to leaf-only black teas).  It didn't hurt that two versions met me in the middle for including fine leaves in addition to buds, more familiar to me and a better match for my preference, that additional complexity.  And all three are really nice teas; that helps.

I suppose I am describing them in such a way that the Nepal tea sounds better, and I do like it better, slightly, but the Darjeeling is quite close in aspects range, so they are more similar than different.  The differences stand out a lot more for trying them side by side; tasted a month apart it might be harder to distinguish the two.  The Laos tea has a different effect going, brighter, in a slightly different range, but it's also nice in a different way.

It's odd the mineral aspects are so subdued in all these teas that I've barely mentioned them.  It must be an underlying element of the flavors context, part of the reason they come across as complex, but quite subtle for all.  I like the way the dark woods / spice range is doing more for the two more Himalayan teas, with different citrus higher notes supporting the more dominant cocoa for all three.

On the next infusion I think all the three teas are dropping back a bit  The same elements are there but they're thinner, and would surely keep getting thinner.  Based on the tasting last time that Laos Golden Flame really is able to go more rounds than one would expect, staying consistent across longer infusion times for a number of extra rounds.

lower left Laos, right Nepal, top Darjeeling

The spent leaves look a little different but the Nepal and Darjeeling versions aren't so far apart, more a slight color difference, with the Nepal leaves just a little darker.

That was interesting!  A word of caution about comparison tasting golden tips style teas:  the level of caffeine in these feels substantial, with that effect going a bit far given how many rounds I tasted through.  It took a good number of hours for that extra level of tweak to wear off.

No comments:

Post a Comment