Tippier version left (per description), but they look similar
I've written about this general theme before, about protecting small farmers by arranging growing and processing co-ops to produce higher quality, organically grown, orthodox tea, and preserve farmers' way of life by selling better tea more directly, to increase created value and the proportion returned to them. One might wonder, how is this different?
It sounds a bit like the case of Assamica Agro, or Assam Teahaus, the venture by Maddhurjya Gogoi, the tea producer / coordinator I met here in Bangkok awhile back. I'd be guessing to venture how this initiative it is different, but I will do that.
I just met one of the main people developing this visiting Bangkok, Jaba Borgohain. I didn't see any web page references for the producer these are labeled under, Oiirabot, but Jaba's profile page did reference the Organic Assam Campaign.
Jaba is visiting the local university my family has the closest ties to, Chulalongkorn, my wife's former school, for an education conference event not related to the subject of tea. The approach here is going to be for me to guess how these different ventures differ, and shed more light on hers, and then let her correct that by passing on more feedback in a later post. The potential for adding some error is present, since I did just meet her for a few hours and talked some about this, after discussing it by message for a week or so. But passing on an initial rough take is completely valid, as I see it.
To be clear these different ventures all are doing similar things in similar ways; I don't want to take away from that, or reject it. The same is true of discussing this issue with Narendra Kumar Gurung related to Nepal, or that contact in the North of Thailand, Aphiwat Kokhue, or related to what Anna and William are supporting in Laos, through NGO development projects (covered lots of place in this blog, but last mentioned here, with links to follow). This isn't about saying this project is somehow better or more important than those. It seems unique, but only to a limited extent. To me the general approach is great, and all of these initiatives sound uniquely promising.
Jaba is also trying to reconstruct past tea history, researching what was produced and how over the past, so that the end point isn't to produce Chinese style or fusion themed teas related to current market demand. It's to produce the best possible tea using traditional sources and methodology, making some adjustments for optimizing results along the way. She's not trying to import as much foreign processing approach or equipment as possible, or to change over types of teas being grown (again, all this is my understanding; maybe some retraction and clarification will follow).
These development themes always vary a little related to those sorts of focuses. The work Anna and William are doing in Laos is more or less trying to bring Laos tea up to Chinese standards, for better versions from there, which would involve adjusting processing in relation to a foreign standard and type. That's not such a bad thing, since those two tea traditions there are continuous, in an old form. Probably processing has shifted to some extent over the last half a century in China (or improved over the last 20 years, as likely), but the style of tea hasn't changed as much as refinements have made best versions more universal. Or at least that's my understanding.
Maddhurjya is trying to import Taiwanese tea production equipment (not just trying; he's done it); and probably is borrowing from foreign tea production styles. That's also not such a bad thing. A vendor in Indonesia related how they were going for a complete fusion of tea plant sources, processing steps, equipment use, and final styles outcome (Toba Wangi, with a vendor profile here; those teas I tried from them were great). I can relate to why some people would appreciate the native-approach theme a lot more, but it's not as if it's the only valid starting point or input.
The tea itself will tell some of the story about how results go so far. And Jaba can correct what I've said that's a bit of a miss, or fill in more details. I'll let the package description add more background, to clarify that I'm not just re-interpreting discussion points as ran across them:
Handmade Tales is a specialty tea brand of Oiirabot, a tea enterprise based in tea city, Dibrugarh, Assam (India). Oiirabot specializes in handcrafted chemical-free premium teas, cultivated in remote regions of Assam.
Oiirabot works in close colaboration with the small tea growers of Assam to create premium quality tea varieties and promote chemical-free tea farming among the tea growers of Assam. Other range of premium tea products under Handmade Tales:
Blue Tea [so oolong?]
Bamboo Smoked Tea [she passed on some falap / phalap, which I've never yet tried]
Green Tea with Silver Tips
Black Tea with Golden Tips
Assamese Traditional Smoked Dheki Tea
I didn't emphasize that organic theme, even though she and I talked a lot about the pros and cons of certifications. In short I had told her that doesn't seem to be a primary selling point in the US, even though it is definitely a practical concern people are very aware of.
I did brew these for much longer than I typically would sheng pu'er or most twisted oolong styles, for around 20 seconds. It would work well to limit that to 10-15 seconds, but the stronger form would be closer to the results from brewing the tea Western style. It will help with moving through the initial saturation phase, going slightly longer, and I can adjust timing based on results from each round based on results from the last (all standard stuff, really).
version with more golden tips left
Assam Black Orthodox Tea with Golden Tips: that's really interesting. You would expect malt to stand out most in any Assam, and it never really drops out for any version, but in this it's only one part of a broader profile, not dominant at all. If anything a flavor range similar to sun-dried tomato stands out more, a rich, almost fruity sweetness that includes a bit of umami. Nothing like that aspect framed in a seaweed or "greener" context in Japanese green teas, but I'm interpreting it as related.
This isn't so close to any other tea style I've ever tried that I can use that as a clear starting point, not even other orthodox Assam. One part reminds me more of Jin Jun Mei, that warm, honey-way sweet and rich range. There's malt too, so that's different from those, but barely present in relation to the typical role that plays in Assam versions. Cocoa joins those; that's more common with other Chinese black tea range.
It's nice, just a bit shocking to experience so much complexity at first, so removed from any expectations. There's almost no astringency; it doesn't even have a dry or rough feel, just fullness of body.
Assam Black Orthodox Tea: presumably this is similar to the other but based on less tippy material, but that may not work to assume that. It could be from a slightly different local area, made from different plant type sources, and processed differently; I just don't have that information. Inputs are one thing and experienced results another anyway; in the end the tea speaks for itself.
This does overlap a good bit with the other version, only quite different for all the same aspects balancing differently. Malt plays a similar but different role in this, or maybe it just comes across differently. To back up and frame that, when you drink CTC Assam, or even better versions of orthodox Assam, it's typical for a blast of malt--in a very specific form--to define the experience. Even when it balances well with the rest it still usually stands out as the single dominant aspect. Not in these. Related to good versions of Chinese black teas tasting a little malty these are comparable; it's still present.
It's as sweet as the other version, possibly slightly sweeter. An aspect like sun-dried tomato is also present, that rich, warm, complex range, it's just not as dominant. Cocoa and bees-wax (which I referenced as common with Jin Jun Mei) is also present, but again not as much. Since it's just as intense as the other version it's hard to clarify what is filling in for the difference. An underlying mineral structure may stand out just a little more, or a sweet version of dried wood tone, approaching that of bark spice, but leaving off where dried sticks tend to smell. Or that could be tied to a version of tree bark, but only a very specific type, not the full, thick bark of mature hardwood, or the lighter, mineral intensive nature of peel-bark trees (aspen or birch), but instead a thin, dark bark common to other ranges of tree types. Maybe "like sticks" is clearer than all that.
Related to feel this has a different kind of structure, a hint of dryness, but it's not astringent. Malt in Assam usually seems somehow connected to a dry, structured feel, but these are a good bit softer and fuller than that, or "rounder" if a more vague, graphic comparison helps.
Right out of the gate these are on par with or possibly even better than any other Assam I've ever tried, and I've explored that range a bit. Usually newer producers go through a "dialing-in" phase while they work out removing obvious flaws, but they're onto the next step already, optimizing results. I was surprised that Narendra seemed to jump over that step in making Nepalese teas too.
I think both may have been successful for a common reason; they're really not new to it, at all. Both sets of producers (farmers, who also produce tea) were probably making pretty good tea before, and did go through some adjustment phase I wasn't in on testing, but were able to rush that process for starting out further ahead. External input could also be a factor, as in William and Anna's case, drawing on one or more good reference sources. Anyway, the teas are nice.
I went fast on this second infusion, around 10 seconds. That will soften mouth-feel even further, which wasn't necessary, but I'm curious about how the flavors and other aspects work at a light infusion level, around how I prepare a lot of Chinese teas.
Golden tips black (leaves and tips, the tippier version): more of the same, only slightly lighter; it's not really developing to change. That sun-dried tomato range umami effect is interesting; that just doesn't come up much in any black teas. It's pleasant, just really novel. An optimum infusion level (intensity) for this would be brewed for longer, as I expected. It's interesting that the tea has reasonable thickness of feel, even brewed lightly; even some aftertaste effect occurs. That mix of sun-dried tomato rich sweetness, bees wax, and cocoa is quite pleasant, with hardly any malt filling in for balance between an earthy and mineral range, but just a touch.
Someone looking for a blast of malt in this tea would be disappointed; for being more on a Chinese-black style range it works really well. It's odd saying it but this probably wouldn't be ideal for making masala chai. It's one of the better Indian black teas I've tried, so that's not really a natural connection anyone would make anyway, considering how simmering this with spices would work out.
Orthodox black (just less tippy): this does transition, or maybe it's that it comes across much different at a lower infusion intensity, while the other just seemed lighter but with identical aspects. I get a sense there's something I'm missing in this description, some way of portraying what it's like in a clearer way I've not considered. It also contains a faint bees-wax aspect, and limited amount of cocoa, and a faint trace of malt, maybe just a little more. Then there's a wood tone that's different, closer to tree bark or bark spice than fresh or cured hardwood or pine, nothing like those ranges. It's not like forest-floor either, nothing like autumn leaves, or wetter earthier range. Maybe leather, that sweet, rich smell from a bomber jacket, leather bound book, or baseball glove. Framed within the rest of the complex flavors I'm not sure which it's closest to.
The feel has a hint more structure and dryness to it. You can't really pick it up within the flavor range but it seems like maybe a touch more mineral (warm-toned mineral) is supporting that other mix, and that's why it comes across as complex in a different way, and why the feel character is different. Or it could just be the malt-tone is different, but it's light enough in these that it's hard to break down. A stronger infusion will help with identifying that difference.
It's a little known fact that Assamica plant types produce more caffeine than variety Sinensis, one of very few uniform inputs that identify a difference. The other is that younger leaves and buds contain more caffeine as well; beyond that it just varies by case. These teas really hitting me reminded me of all that. For being two infusions in I'm feeling that caffeine. Maybe some of what people write off as "tea drunk" in young sheng just is that. Only some; I get it that people are having semi-mystical experiences of different types, not just caffeine buzzed.
Tippier black: intensity is back up but only in a normal range; these may be fading just a little already. It doesn't help using up a lot of time between rounds to write, because in effect I'm letting the tea leaves cool, which cools the water I pour onto them. Again that sun-dried tomato umami stands out, with the rest of the list as I had described. It may be edging towards slightly earthier and slightly less sweet. The cocoa and bees wax may be on the way out, with a mild dark wood tone picking up, closer to the form of the other, but not really the same.
Orthodox black: the feel of this is quite different; astringency really did ramp up. It's nowhere near the level of a CTC tea, or maybe even a more standard orthodox black range, but compared to both in the first two rounds it's considerable. If anything the other tea lightened in character and feel, the opposite. That stronger edge draws out more of the bees-wax impression, with malt tone picking up quite a bit; now it really is a main aspect, just not yet a dominant one.
The slightly dry feel that is common to Assam tea is more present, the structured feel / body that comes across that way, versus Chinese teas being softer (or often Darjeeling too, for that matter, but those vary a lot, covering many pleasant forms and aspect combinations). This is probably the only infusion of the six I've tried that would be familiar to people drinking "more bold" and more typical forms of black tea. Boldness seems to imply some degree of value judgement, and "briskness" overlaps with that a little, relating more exclusively to feel instead of also flavor. I tend to not use those terms because to me they're not descriptive enough, and try to describe actual flavors and feel aspects instead. But they could definitely be meaningful; it's a matter of preference of terms and convention.
This might be a good place to leave off given that 8 small cups of tea prepared like this is a lot. I'd expect that the story of round 5 is about how these transition towards the finish, with how durable they are to produce lots of consistent infusions more relevant than how that final transition sequence plays out. It is nice when some Dian Hong (Yunnan black, my overall favorite black tea type, or range, as it works out) are still very positive in later round forms, so that stretching out 2 or 3 late rounds is still nice to experience. You get more experience out of your tea that way. It's more common for all black tea types to stay positive for a shorter run, to fade to become woody or something such.
Orthodox with golden tips: this is thinning a little further. The richness, round feel, thickness, and overall pleasantness is still present but it's fading. A longer infusion time would bump that next round. I'd expect that's not how the other version goes, that it's just changing form more, not intensity level so much, based on the last round.
Orthodox black: it might be fading a little, but not like the other version. It still has that astringency edge, although this is brewed too lightly for it to feel rough, it just has structure. The balance isn't quite as positive as it had been, the level of flavor in relation to that feel aspect, and related mineral / malt flavor tones (seemingly related; maybe they have nothing to do with each other, and I'm adding the association).
This is much closer to other forms of orthodox Assam I've tried, as it comes across this round, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Those usually break into two sets of character types, as very intense and malt-heavy, and much thinner and softer and more subtle. At a guess harvest season timing may have caused that as much as any other input, spring teas (the more intense versions) versus those harvested and produced at other times. Of course that's just a guess. Darjeeling second flush is just as intense as first, just different in character, related to picked leaf characteristics and processing differences. I'm really not familiar enough with Assam "flushes" or harvest seasons to speculate, just mentioning the obvious, as I see it.
It seems like one more slightly stretched timing round would tell a more complete story, and since I'm just buzzed versus blasted on caffeine I might as well go there.
These brewed around a minute, plenty of time to draw out more infusion strength, just maybe a bit much for the second.
Black with more golden tips: the aspects are a bit more subdued but in the same range as earlier, just leveled off a bit. It's still very positive, not picking up astringency, heavy mineral tone, or any woody flavors, still just as sweet, mellow, complex, and balanced. Given how subtle this has become it might only work to run two even longer infusions, since it's staying so positive, with that seventh one pushing it a bit. I never compared the flavor to honey, but I guess it went without saying that saying it tasted a bit like bees wax overlapped some with that. This is more like honey than that bees wax now, which is also very pleasant, just subtle. The sun-dried tomato flavor range dropped out (earlier in the rounds, really), leaving other warm, soft tones, closer to cocoa, but not branching into being woody.
I never did mention that although these two look kind of similar the character of this version is much closer to that of golden tips or buds-heavy tea versions. That content difference must be right; both the label and corresponding character match can't be wrong.
Orthodox black: the tapering off of intensity is in a positive place for this version too, with aspect balance a lot closer to the other than I'd have expected. This has more astringency now, and malt is more pronounced, but the honey sweetness and soft, rich tones aren't as different as they had been. The feel in this has more structure, at this point, but the other isn't thin, even for becoming lighter, it's just not as thick as it had been.
This already covered what I thought of the teas; they were really good. It's tempting to say that they are better than the other two sets of versions of orthodox Assam produced by small co-op producers (Assamica Agro and Assam Teahaus). It might be the case that I'm just trying a later, more-tweaked version of these teas, that from 2 to 3 years ago when I tried those others the ones made by this same producer wouldn't have been quite as refined. And those other two producers may have made quality gains since then, and adjusted to make new types; in fact, I'd be surprised if they hadn't.
It's a little odd that all three seem to be on such closely related time-tables. I don't think any of them were doing anything remotely like this 4 years ago (or maybe it's 5 instead, but I think it's not), and they've covered a lot of similar ground fast. I like this individual theme, the idea of going back to earlier, traditional forms of tea, versus fusing other production methods along with what was already done. Optimization of both may follow similar patterns; the outcomes may be more similar than one would expect.
This is only the beginning of this description. I have one more green tea to try, and I want Jaba to help adjust what I've said to make it more detailed and accurate. She has also been researching the history of tea in Assam, which can confidently be re-written from the present form based on citing clear and reliable text references. I'll leave that part as a teaser, and won't share what I've already heard about that.
Jaba is here on a academic conference visit, related to a subject other than tea. That's interesting to me, how people can bridge experience and strengths from other backgrounds and discipline to inform tea investigation or development. Of course the tradition she is a part of, was born into, also related quite a bit to agricultural themes, and traditional tea production. Academic research does open the door to exploring history in a different way, though. Probably not in any way that made this tea as good as it is, but it's still an interesting sub-theme.
More will follow across those different scopes.
meeting Jaba at Jip Eu, my favorite shop, along with Ralph, from Germany
visiting Wat Pho, a main Bangkok temple
the main ceremony hall Buddha statue there