Friday, August 10, 2018

Assam Teehaus Spring 2018 black tea review

I tried another orthodox Assam version from Maddhurjya Gogoi, that Sasha passed on when I met him a couple weeks ago (from Assam Teehaus).  I've tried a couple, and it's hard to keep track of which one is the absolute best, or how different the batches are, so I'll just go ahead and review the one I got around to writing about.  It was good tea.  "Good" means a range of different things, which is where these wordy tasting notes come in.

I just re-read a post about trying a 2017 version a month ago.  This description is pretty close in general type, just a little off on a detail or two.  I can't say if it sounds better or not; when a tea is kind of similar you really need a side-by-side tasting to help sort that out.  For some types you can base a judgement on a couple of specific attributes, which will make it clear in your memory where you thought it stood for quality level and match to preferences.  These Assam Teehaus teas are pretty good quality overall, with a limitation of being a little non-specific, of mixing a lot of aspect range instead of being as narrow in character as some types.

I haven't described the tea yet, but in a sense all the complexity that I will describe almost comes across as a blend, with some clear common aspect threads through that character.  From what Sasha and Maddhurjya mentioned this may stem from an interesting input: the teas are made from locally sourced plants, so they know the farmers and growing conditions, but a limited variety of tea plants have grown alongside each other.  The tea plant source itself isn't based on monoculture, in terms of growing alone (only tea plants), or in the other sense of being made from a very genetic-specific plant version.  The "terroir" or growing condition inputs are relatively uniform but plant genetics vary. To me that's cool, and surely is a factor that changes the end effect.

This Halmari orthodox Assam version works as a contrast to that.  As a standard plantation tea they would control growing inputs and plant type very carefully and completely, achieving a much more uniform outcome, and a narrow set of aspects.  In general that's a good thing, especially since it can correspond to an experience of aspect intensity.

More than one being better though the two types of tea are different.  That Halmari version really did express a much sharper and more pronounced form of malt, which did come across as the main flavor aspect.  Some of what the Halmari version gained in perceived intensity in a limited range it gave up in terms of losing complexity of flavor. 

For some people the softer, slightly sweeter and broader flavor range in the version I'm reviewing here would be preferable, and for others it might not be nearly as pleasant.  I think Maddhurjya's teas are improving, so while I might have said Halmari's are just better last year--beyond being different--now that's not quite as clear now.

The detailed description will fill in what I mean.


The tea is really nice, complex, sweet, layered, and pleasant.  When people describe Assam as having really intense malt as a dominant aspect this isn't that; it balances a range of different aspects.  There is some malt to it but it doesn't stand out more than other sweetness, earthy aspects, and some dried fruit.  A warm mineral layer provides a base for the rest too.  Breaking all that into a more detailed description is a bit of a task.

A mild form of malt stands out as much as anything, but it integrates with the rest.  Usually that aspect pairs with an edgy astringency but this tea is soft, but with good body.  I've brewed it perfectly, for my preference for the type, using a really heavy handed proportion for Western style (probably more like 5 grams versus 2, but I didn't weigh it), and around a 2 1/2 minute steep.

nice to get back to simpler tea tasting

Next in intensity is fruit.  It's a dark, rich fruit tone that overlaps with earthiness, tamarind or fig (really dried tamarind; the "fig" is to help place that, for people who don't eat it).  Earthiness is hard to place; between a cured leather and aromatic tobacco.  The sweetness level and rich body really make it work, along with all those flavors being really clean.

I went a little shorter on the infusion time next round, to see how drinking it lighter changed it. The first thing that I noticed was that I used hotter water, shifting the flavor to add that one sort of dark toffee aspect.  That came from not prewarming the infusion device cup the first round, I think. 

It reminds me of that post on oolong brewing temperature, where a couple main themes emerged, so I'll do a tangent and talk through some of that (again related to oolong, but some ideas carry over).

Reddit's Tea subforum version (credit)

There was a split between the "always use boiling point" side and the lower temperatures you see on reference tables side, with almost everyone going with boiling point given where that took place (in the Gong Fu Cha group).  I think lower temperatures might work better for Western brewing but I agree that to get the most out of good oolongs you shouldn't do that.  Personal preference muddled there being one final conclusion, except for the "boiling point only" side.  I think using Western style brewing changes things, and I also tend not to go with that for oolongs, although it works better for rolled-style examples than for Wuyi Yancha or Dan Cong (in my opinion).

A friend made an interesting observation, that if someone is a cigarette smoker they would naturally want the most intensity they could get, which still even relates when brewing a tea very lightly, in this divide related to drawing out the one edgier aspect range.  As I take it there is a parallel in the difference between these first two black tea infusions; a slight edge showed up due to pre-warming the brewing device.  Or maybe I'm over thinking all this.

Again in this round the complexity is good, even brewed a little lighter.  The malt comes out more in this infusion, tied to different, richer mineral and earth tones.  The flavor is quite intense but the feel is still full but soft. It would be hard to screw up brewing this tea, and that rich, full flavor would go well with different kinds of food.  For tea enthusiasts into sitting and contemplating a dozen Gongfu rounds of refined, complex aspect tea that could be quite an insult to a tea, to say it's good with food, but then this style wouldn't be for everyone in a way that does seem to dove-tail with that factor.

For people moving on from lower quality loose black teas it would be perfect, and for more experienced tea drinkers it would just depend on the range they could appreciate. Not everyone drinks black tea, never mind individual styles.  I like it, but then I seem to appreciate diversity quite a bit, teas being pleasant in completely different ways.  Sometimes I do brew very subtle, complex, or sophisticated teas Gongfu style with breakfast, but more often I like something more simple that's going to work well as two or three mug-fulls brewed Western style, something I don't have to think about.

More input from Maddhujya

In the last post I mentioned some difficulties that Maddhurjya communicated having in ramping up orthodox tea production:  stable power supply, problems with rough roads, the typical difficulties with sales and marketing.  A lot of that would be common to anywhere.  He did comment on specific forms related to some of the issues in discussion, for example about the power supply:

The biggest challenge is paucity of electricity. The processing unit in our village is almost 1 km away from the Grid Transformer so we don't get proper voltage. And everyday there is power cuts for hours...... We were depending on a diesel fueled genset but unfortunately that also broke down at one point.

I asked him about the mix of different plant types.  That particular issue is interesting to me, not something that necessarily makes a difference in final outcome mapped to consumer preference until you really know a lot about it, but it's still interesting.  He mentioned the range of plant types grown at different sources they use, and which relate to this tea version:

We have TV1, TV9, Panitola 126, TiniAli 17, some wild seed variety and some vegetative clones.  The major input percentage for this tea version is Panitola 126, with Tiniali 17 and TV 1 also mixed in.

That definitely makes my review evaluation sound better, since I'd guessed a mix of plant types had been an influence on the character.  I tried to explain how I saw that to him in discussion, about how a narrow type or a broader input of sources doesn't necessarily seem better, but the outcome seems different (quoting myself this time; a bit odd, that):

Some Darjeeling and plantation Assam teas seem to have a very specific, limited aspect set output, probably through control of both narrow plant type sourcing and processing factors.  That gains something in terms of intensity and being novel, and gives something up in terms of broader aspect range and overall balance.  It's not that one is better than the other, they're just different.   To me it's not that different than a single grape wine versus a blend.  It's a trade-off; one isn't better than the other.  French people seem more inclined towards blends but Americans produce and drink both, only exploring and developing blends more recently.

Oddly I'm talking to someone about sheng just now and this all works in that discussion context too.  But enough with the tangents.

It's also hard to be clear on what differences the various processing step inputs make.  In particular Maddhuryja has been mentioning use of certain machines.  This comment doesn't shed that much light on the broad range but it does work for indirectly pointing towards some of it:

Our Taiwan rolling table is not like Indian rolling tables. The stainless steel used in the rolling table is FoodGrade Steel.  And it has copper teeth on the table to give its tight roll.

I guess these parts add up to what you'd expect for developing tea processing; there are lots of potential improvements to be made and lots of small challenges to hurdle.  The teas are quite good, and still getting better, so in that one important sense it's already working out.  They'll just need to keep making the growing, harvesting, and processing details come together, and ramp up the commercial side.

If any readers would like to play a more active role in promoting local, sustainable tea production this might be a good opportunity, by checking into buying tea from Assam Teehaus.  It's strange for a blog post to express marketing so directly, isn't it?  I think it might get by people that not only small vendors could order this tea, that anyone anywhere in the world could look up Maddhurjya and ask about picking up a kilo of it.  The numbers really wouldn't work out to buy 200 grams of tea from the opposite side of the world but as quantity increases a bit shipping is offset by lower per-unit cost.  This is all familiar ground for Yunnan Sourcing China customers, but I'm not sure how many higher quality Assam drinkers have explored this direction.

Oddly I'm going to be saying something similar related to a very small start-up tea producer in Nepal over the next two weeks.  Not the sales pitch part; the rest, about history and development status.  It's good to see sourcing options development move beyond people only saying they wish there was an alternative to multiple-resale wholesale supply chains and large corporation tea production.  Now there is.  But I don't think the pull on the demand side is enabling this to work well just yet.  Some things just take time, and sometimes multiple variables need to come together for a paradigm shift like this to happen.  It may be that small local retailers play a crucial role, even online versions of those, versus completely direct sales working out.  Time will tell.

with Kalani, dressed for a school presentation

wearing make-up for that event

posing at home beforehand

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