Monday, September 10, 2018

Shillong, Meghalaya Indian black tea from Suzana Syiem

I met an online friend from India not so long ago, Suzana Syiem, someone I'd been talking to for awhile.  It's nice when you meet someone you only knew online and it feels really natural, as if you'd been friends for a long time, with no strange alignment of perspectives to work past.  It's not necessarily a deal breaker when it goes the other way, since different people can approach things in relatively different ways and still find common ground.

should be cool to experiment with

I passed on some tea samples and she gave me a few different things, an Indian snack and food item, and a commercial masala spice blend (I'll be talking about that later), and this really interesting looking tea.  I'll get back to saying more about that origin, from the Meghalaya region outside of Shillong.


I don't usually start reviews with the dry leaf scent but why not.  It's interesting, sweet and complex, with a bit of earthiness but more along the lines of a dried fruit, like raisin or grape.  It doesn't smell that much different than I'd expect a second flush darjeeling to. 

There is a trace of mustiness to the scent; it'll be interesting to see how that plays out.  I could swear Suzana recommended brewing the tea Gongfu style so I will.  There's enough to check later how Western brewing works out, and for black teas it tends to usually not make much difference.  For a few types a Gongfu approach really is different but for more the results are about the same.

About water temperature, some people would use full boiling point for this, but I'd think dropping down to 90 -95 C instead would be a more common approach, and would work better.  I'm using a water filter and dispenser system that never maintains full boiling point temperature so I'm erring on the side of a bit off that for all teas.

On first taste:  wow!  This tea is much different than I expected, a lot more complex.  There is sweet fruit there, and an earthy range that's common to a lot of black teas, towards malt, but a hint of smoke as well, and probably a couple other things I missed on the first sip.  It's not really exactly like any tea I've ever tried.  That part is nice; different is good.

just getting started

The complexity is really something.  It has a few main layers working.  As far as the effect being musty it seems like it might clean up a little on the next infusion but it's not really off, it just could be cleaner in effect.  That part comes across as a bit of damp wood, or like the scent of those those fungus that grow on the side of trees.  The flavor is more bright and clean than murky though; that part relates to one flavor layer, more earthy in an unusual way than musty.  It's all hard to pin down.  There's so much fruit that separating it out as distinct types is an issue; it does seem like a rich version of citrus, with a little grape, not so far off muskatel, or really that probably is a good description.  The smoke is just smoke.

Since this description seems a little chaotic I'll try again in clearer fashion the next round, brewing that fast, since intensity is only going to be an issue if I let it go too long.

I'm seeing why she would recommend to brew this Gongfu style.  It shifts a good bit; it would be a shame to let this soak for 4 minutes and not experience that (although the results would probably be nice that way too).  Earthiness picks up, the malt, and the smoke stays even, or maybe drops off a little.  The complexity related to damp wood or fungus drops back; it's that little bit cleaner, not that it was as musty as seemed possible from the dry leaf smell.  The fruit integrates into the earthy range on this round more.  I suppose it still does include some citrus and grape but that joins in more with the malt and deeper mineral base.  It picks up a bit of resinous character, like pine needle, or pine pitch really, that is common in buds-heavy better versions of Assam.

It has a lot of aftertaste compared to other black teas; it's not at all gone after you drink it.  As I keep saying in sheng reviews I'm not overly attached to that, but beyond getting to experience that one extra aspect it adds to the overall impression of complexity.  The real story of this tea is how it manages to balance with so much going on.  It totally works.  I suppose it would work just as well or maybe better if the proportions shifted in different ways, if the fruit stood out more, or if the feel was lighter, and so on.  For having this much intensity across a broad range of aspects and expressing so much that's positive without flaws turning up it's great.  And I suspect it will seem a good bit different on the third infusion, so there's that extra level, it seems to transition quite a bit.

even a bit light it's still really intense

On the next round the citrus really did kick in for some reason.  It's intense, in the range of dried orange peel.  It tastes as much like orange peel as those tea-stuffed tangerine peels I've been trying (I think those were tangerines, maybe mandarin oranges instead).  It's really strange that this tea could jump in citrus aspect level like that over one round.  Teas shift aspects and transition but not usually like that, with one part that hardly stands out emerging to that degree.  Malt picked up too, along with that pine resin, and other earthiness dropped out; the smoke and other damp wood earthiness is more or less gone.  It's almost like I'm drinking a different tea.  Suzana really hooked me up.

Astringency ramped up a little too.  I didn't change the length of infusion times--I don't think; I'm not measuring that--but I might have let it run a few more seconds.  The tea might have just fully hit stride for brewing, picked up the infusion pace on it's own.  Being a chopped leaf tea changes things, and it's not typical to use a black tea version of one for brewing Gongfu style in a packed gaiwan.  At least backing off the proportion and using 15 to 20 second times versus really short infusions would seem more conventional for this tea version.

The next infusion was just a quick in an out; the intensity is fine at this level, and it moderates astringency being lighter.  The character seems to have stopped shifting; it's as it was last round, just lighter.

I'm tempted to guess at where this stands related to other Indian teas I've tried, but it's really just overlapping in character with others from here and there.  It's not like Assam or Darjeeling, and not really "in between" the two in some way, although in very rough terms that would sort of work to make that claim.  Those are the only two areas in India that I've tried tea from, with the exception of the Lochan's teas, from the Doke plantation (which are nice, and seem to draw on experimentation with different styles).

The intensity, pronounced malt, and pine resin aspect remind me of Assam.  Citrus can occur in those, and does, but the fruit complexity is more like Darjeelings can be.  Really Darjeeling covers a lot of range; I'd be discussing this in comparison with second flush here, which is really still a broad scope.  They use different tea types to make those, and grow them under different conditions, with variation in processing making a lot of difference.  It doesn't work to say "second flush Darjeeling is like ___," although including a muscatel aspect would be really standard.  The better Darjeeling versions express a subtlety, complexity, and narrow, distinct character that this moves away from a little. 

I'm definitely not saying this reminds me of a tea-type blend versus a single-plant type, as I've mentioned in a recent Assam review.  It just covers a good bit of aspect range.  If a tea isn't made from one distinct plant type, sourced from within a narrow growing region, the mix can come across in a way that rounds off distinctive, separate aspects.  This isn't like that.  It's my impression the broad set of flavors occurs in this as a natural result of tea character, not because it's made from different plant types, or from versions grown across a broad area.

Of course a lot of that is guessing.  I'd love to hear back others' impressions about these themes but that's not how this blogging practice seems to work.

the leaves kept on expanding; different

On the next infusion I transferred the tea to a larger gaiwan; it expanded more than I expected it to, probably more tightly twisted than I thought it would be, even for being broken leaves.  The smokiness picked back up a little; interesting.  Mineral too; it's still heavy in citrus but with a different balance.  On the infusion after I let it go long due to getting a phone call; astringency picked up, and woodiness, but the character isn't changing as much as I'd expect for this many rounds out of a black tea, it's staying a lot like it had been.

Conclusions, tea area research

This tea is really interesting; I'm glad I have enough left to try it a good number of times, to mess around with approach.  I've always known that there are lots of different areas and styles of tea in India I've not made it to (beyond falap; I'll get to their version of bamboo pu'er eventually too), and it's nice to try one.

credit the India Tea Association

Interesting; lots of places there produce tea that I've not tried yet.  Upon looking closer Shillong isn't listed as one of them, on that map.

It can be difficult to compare the two map references, since the areas aren't familiar to me, but that first map lists Guwahati as an auction center within Assam that more or less marks the Southern extent of that growing area (and region), with Shillong well South of that.  Never mind.

Some of the history of the area I looked up turned up an interesting reference (from Wikipedia):

Shillong was capital for composite Assam during the British regime and later till a separate State of Meghalaya was formed. David Scott, the British civil servant of the East India Company, was the Agent of the Governor-General North East Frontier. 

During the First Anglo-Burmese War the British authorities felt the need for a road to connect Sylhet and Assam. The route was to traverse across the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. David Scott overcame the difficulties his administration faced from the opposition of the Khasi Syiems – their chiefs and people. Impressed by the favourable cool climate of Khasi Hills, they negotiated with the Syiem of Sohra in 1829 for a sanatorium for the British. Thus began the consolidation of British interests in the Khasi-Jaintia Hills.

A serious uprising by the Khasis against foreign occupation of their land followed. It began early in 1829 and continued till January 1833. Eventually the Khasi confederate chiefs were no match against the military might of the British. David Scott negotiated for the surrender of the leader of the Khasi resistance, Tirot Sing Syiem...

Shillong (credit:  Windrider24584 at English Wikipedia

Maybe some of Suzana's ancestors tried to cast those nasty British imperialists out, a half a century after my American ancestors did just that.

The rest is interesting, but there is no mention of tea.  Climate is covered, which sounds cool but mild enough to grow lots of different things.  Some random ideas from that article:  the Shillong area was referred to as "the Scotland of the East," in a good sense, with literacy rates well over 90%, and Christianity as the main religion.

I won't be able to find out much about typical local tea styles but it was nice reading around about different growing areas.  A familiar Indian tea vendor does mention some background of the Meghalaya growing area:

When prospectors sent by the East India Company explored the country for potential tea growing, Meghalaya too was considered an option. But the Khasi ruler of the time refused to allow migrant labor to be brought in. Tea is a labor-intensive commodity and with insufficient labor available, Meghalaya dropped off the plans. 

In the 70s, the Tea Board of India sent a delegation to explore tea growing in Meghalaya. They found it immensely favorable and tea plants from both Assam and Darjeeling were brought. Three regions were earmarked for tea – Umsning in Ri–Bhoi district, Tebronggre in West Garo Hills and Riangdo in the West Khasi Hills. Assam variants are now growing in the lower altitude places in Garo while Darjeeling style teas are growing higher – altitudes of 3000-5,500 ft can be found here. 

The government has set up its own brand, “Meg-Tea” that is available in green and black orthodox versions. Elsewhere in the state, 20 farmers from Mawlyngot village set up a cooperative to market their green, black and white teas under the name “Urlong Tea”.  On the ouskirts of Shillong, the 90s saw the beginnings of yet another estate – LaKyrsiew...

Suzana might know which of these cooperative sources this is from, or it could be something else, but that doesn't seem to change much since none are familiar to me.  Regardless of the rest of that background it was a really interesting and pleasant tea, on the unique side.

1 comment:

  1. This details so much about the tea I wake up to. It is so well written John. Cheers!!!