I've been talking with another chance contact based out of Assam, the vendor who operates Tea Leaf Theory, Upamanyu Borkakoty. He's a friend of Maddhurjya Gorgoi's, another producer and vendor I've met here in Bangkok before, which to me is a good sign, since Maddhurjya is a good guy.
The themes keep repeating, about promoting smaller producer teas, in order to support local farmers and tea industry. From what I've experienced quality level of small Assam producers has been improving quite a bit over the past few years. For anyone who tried "more local" Assam in the past, but not recently, the range of offerings has expanded and improved. I was just saying something related about tea types in general though, that trying a few versions of any given type might not lead to experiencing the above average versions in that range, or even type-typical examples. Styles of Assam production seem to be evolving, so categorization as a narrow type probably doesn't work very well now.
I'm not completely sure that these are Assam. I'd assume that, but the locations aren't familiar, and a vendor reselling different teas wouldn't need to narrow them to a range. I think one sample in the set was a Darjeeling (to be clear Upamanyu provided these for review, and to support further discussion; that's much appreciated). It ruins the blind-tasting effect for reading context, so I won't say here, but a section at the end covers what they really are.
He has sent enough pictures I should include those in another post instead (with more appearing in Instagram, or as video intro). I'll skip venturing into prior discussion scope too. It's what you'd imagine, that different farmers and producers are trying out different models and approaches, and all face similar constraints and problems, how to ramp up quality and consistent production, onto marketing and setting pricing that is sustainable, with a background context of moving towards natural tea production versus liberal use of chemicals. I'm not making claims for the last related to these teas but their web-page introduction does:
Maintaining the sustainability and natural integrity the Tea Leaf Theory, a small natural tea grower's initiative founded in 2015 trains, support and promote the marginalized tea farmers across Assam and Darjeeling. It has spread to the emerging tea producing regions like Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Nilgiri, Manipur and Mizoram...
...The farmers enrolled in our group adopts traditional cultivation techniques which were passed on by their ancestors through generations, have shunned the use of harmful and expensive chemicals in order to preserve the soil for the future generations.
Most of our farmers doesn’t have an organic certification as we could not afford to get one owing to very high certification cost however, our cultivation techniques are far above organic standards and have passed chemical tests, hence we call it a natural way of farming...
This an interesting point, about how not all organically produced teas are certified, and not all certified teas are actually organic. Multiple people have told me that here in Thailand it costs less to "work around" the certification process and still receive the attribution than it would to switch over production methods. Take that for what it's worth; it is hearsay. I work in a different field related to compliance and certification auditing myself, with IT ISO systems, so I'm familiar with how in even the best cases things can be less clearly determined than one might expect.
That web-page description context invokes another consistent hurdle, how to get small tea producers and vendors set up as Western-oriented direct sellers, or how to build comparable awareness and demand within the Indian market. It's a completely different case than in China, where a strong degree of demand is long established.
Onto review though. It's been nearly two weeks since the last review, related to clearing a sinus infection, which took forever. Black tea will be a great way to start back in. Novel, complex, and approachable black teas have always been a personal favorite, even though I've been leaning into sheng exploration quite a bit for the past two years, and was more on oolong prior to that. I think I'm at least at 90% related to picking up flavors again; I might miss an aspect here or there but these descriptions should be in the ballpark. I'm never at 100% anyway; funny how that works out.
This is what the teas are (label listings):
(Batch No) TTLT 19 Pareng Summer Signature Black Arunchai 001
TTLT 19 Mandal Gaon Second Flush Signature Black D 003
This reminds me of a tea-buyer friend criticizing producers for branding teas as one product type per year. It does work to meet consumers in the middle, to try to recreate large volumes of a single product, to support them being familiar with a single designation, but actual production doesn't work that way. Teas are produced from very local areas, from farm sections within a specific producer range within a broader but still limited region, identified by harvest lot and time of production.
Those smaller lots could be mixed, with a goal of establishing a consistent, large-volume single-brand product. But then some of the limitations of blending versus single-origin tea versions would apply, leveling out character and accounting for flaws at the cost of losing distinctiveness. These tea versions will probably have strengths and weaknesses but unique style should stand out, distinctive flavor and other aspects. It's not as if either is better, use of extensive blending or only appreciating narrow-range sourcing, but my personal preference and a general tea enthusiast expectation typically favors the most narrow possible type sourcing.
I'll brew these Gongfu style. If there ever was a natural time to use a Western approach tea tasting an Indian black tea would be it, but it's not the page I'm on, so I won't. The only way to know which way any given tea would be best is to try both, although of course some generalities for all that apply by broad type.
Arunachal left, Mandal Gaon right; some obvious differences
(Arunachal left, in all) brewing dark for using moderate infusion time
Arunachal: from the dry tea smell this might be Darjeeling; that citrus scent doesn't usually occur in that form and level for Assam. The Mandal Gaon version too; it looks like a Darjeeling, the mix of colors (some are like that), broken leaf form, and different but related dry tea scent, heavy on citrus.
The style is a bit unique. It does include plenty of citrus, but there's a good bit of malt too. A heavy mineral flavor takes over in this first round, not musty or off, but I get the impression that the tea will "clean up" and be lighter with clearer flavors in the next round. It's hard to place this related to other Assam or Darjeeling I've tried, but I've been drinking so little Darjeeling for a couple of years that I don't much frame of reference from recent memory. I'll hold off on a more complete description until the next round since it seems this will change a lot.
Mandal Gaon: this kind of has to be a Darjeeling; it would be strange if a profile that's essentially just what that is were recreated from elsewhere. It's stronger; this is going to need shorter infusion times than the other, related to both the broken leaf presentation and the mix of oxidation levels. I gave these around a 15 second infusion time, long for Gongfu brewing, long enough to get early transition out of the way. It was too long for this tea version.
The positives and negatives that arise from a lot of Darjeelings come up in this, familiar ground in the past, just not something I've been experiencing recently. The fruit is nice, the complexity is great, overall feel and balance is fine. It just has a bit of an edge. It's nice the way that ties to a warm mineral tone, but it's still a little astringent for my preference optimum.
I should brew both to get to a more ideal balance and then do a longer description. For the other tea that relates more to early transition, and moving through initial infusion cycle, and for this it relates to backing off the infusion time. Temperature factors in too, but I'm brewing these at well off boiling point (probably around 90 C, or just over that, but it's not measured), and going cooler would be pushing it, giving up flavor range to adjust feel.
I went with around a 5 second infusion time for the Madal Gaon, with the Arunachal closer to 10, but the first still looks darker (even though the leaves are clearly less oxidized). I may have to shift the first back down to flash infusions.
Arunachal: this did change quite a bit, just not how I expected. The heavy mineral faded back to a more approachable level, with fruit still really pronounced (citrus, close enough to muscatel, but maybe more towards tangerine), with subdued malt at a level and type that balances well. A touch of mushroom joins in; that may be similar to what I was picking up in the first round. It doesn't ruin the overall effect but it's not necessarily positive either. That may transition away in the next round; unusual flavors more or less "burning off" over the first round or two can occur. Take that away and this is a really positive, balanced, full version. Sweetness level is nice, feel is soft but a bit thick and works well, complexity is good, etc.
This probably is Assam. It's not as close to Chinese black tea styles as the ones Jaba passed on (not that they were necessarily "shooting for" that in those, maybe just how it worked out). But the character is closest to other orthodox Assam versions I've tried, even though it's a bit novel. I think it will really show it's potential more in the next round, that the natural transition will probably improve it.
Mandal Gaon: this version is much improved for dialing infusion strength to the right level. Citrus really pops in this, much more so than in the other version. It really is straight muscatel, not a slightly warmer, sweeter, more mellow citrus version as in the other tea. For anyone who loves Darjeeling second flush tea this would be good, and the opposite probably also applies; if that range isn't a favorite this wouldn't be. Tolerance for a certain degree of astringency comes into play. It's not remotely near a CTC black tea level, much lighter and better balanced, but for Chinese black tea styles it's quite pronounced (or for better orthodox Assam, for that matter), along with the citrus one of the two main aspects that stands out.
I like it. The complexity is good; a strong hit of muscatel / citrus supported by mineral range and some other milder earthiness is nice. Using half as much tea and the same parameters would probably be better; flavor intensity is stronger than it really needs to be, and the feel would soften. For my personal preference it's right at the top of the range of astringency I would still like; stronger would ruin the tea. Just backing off infusion time a little more would shift that.
Arunchal: it is the best it has been. That heavy mineral shifted to mushroom has now transitioned to a sun-dried tomato sweetness and savory aspect. That doesn't come up a lot in teas but often enough it's quite familiar. A hint of dried mushroom remains, but the citrus fruit and malt is just as strong, so it all mixes and balances. It's hard to say for sure but this might be better brewed Western style; sometimes those layers that you can extract separately using a Gongfu approach are better mixed together. To me the experience of the tea is more interesting this way, breaking apart what it includes.
It's really quite pleasant and well balanced this round. Communicating how the sweetness level, feel, overall complexity, and underlying mineral base all combine isn't simple, but all that really works, contributing to a nice overall experience.
Mandal Gaon: this is probably the best it's been too. I didn't manage to shorten infusion time since pouring it out takes a few seconds, but the infusion strength works well in this (brewed for around 5-6 seconds). It would work better cutting the proportion in half, making it easier to adjust that, giving more leeway for using an 8-10 second round instead. Or using 2 grams per 200 ml, of course, a more standard Western approach.
Often I'll use a heavier proportion than is typical for Western brewing, even when going that route, more like 3-4 grams per that 200 ml (just under 7 fluid ounces), and use shorter infusion times, 2 1/2 to 3 minutes, adjusted per round by how the last turned out.
Anyway, muscatel and citrus really stands out. The astringency ties to a green-wood or tree-bud-tip taste, kind of woody, but not in the conventional cured wood sense. Sweetness probably also trails into floral range, sweet and heavy, in between rose and lavender, but it's easy to miss for citrus and that other bite standing out. It's also easy to miss how overall balance helps this be so positive too, the role an underlying mineral tone plays, or that pronounced sweetness level, or the effect a pronounced aftertaste contributes, a trailing sweetness. It's strange bringing sheng tasting expectations and experience back into evaluating Indian black tea, but it's not as if the experience of these very different tea types doesn't overlap at all.
There's a touch of aromatic, leather related range too, a flavor one might describe as "tastes like tea," something that stands out in Ceylon or even Lipton's. This tea really spans a much broader range for flavor than the other version, probably tied to variation in oxidation level. The first version (Arunchal) makes up for some of that with a pleasant and full feel experience, and related to a simpler experience not necessarily being worse.
These will keep going for a number of additional infusions, made this way, but I'll cut off notes after this round, since the main story will have been told.
Arunchal: more of the same, but citrus is standing forward the most it has yet, now a dominant flavor aspect with the rest only supporting. I can't pick up any mushroom aspect, now faded to more of a supporting earthiness. This probably would be better prepared Western style, with all that rounding off and citrus standing out more. Again the feel is really nice, right in a great balance for coming across as full body but not astringency edge. And sweetness and overall balance too; it's good.
Mandal Gaon: quite similar to the last round, with little to add related to that. To me this represents a good example and version of a "greener" or less oxidized second flush Darjeeling. Often oxidation level is higher for those instead, more towards a "true" black tea, but this style comes up too, and it works. Anyone who had been drinking a lot of Darjeeling versions could peg this for being similar to other standard, better types, but I've not been on that page. Awhile back I drank Gopaldhara and Rohini versions regularly (which were very nice), but their teas tend to not be made in this style, with second flush versions more oxidized to be more standard black teas.
If anything citrus pops in this more than would be typical. That's odd, given that citrus (and muscatel, a grape, raisin, or wine-like flavor range) are primary Darjeeling flavor characteristics, but this is quite strong and distinctive. It's right in the range of tangerine peel and fruit during this round, maybe just a little stronger and more distinctive than in the last. Brewing it fast (at this proportion) lets the astringency balance, so sweetness and tangerine are the strongest aspects, with astringency notable but less of a factor than those.
Arunachal Pradesh left, Mandal Gaon (Darjeeling) right
Tea version background
It seemed as well to try the teas without that for context and come back to that. I didn't find product descriptions of these but the Tea Leaf Theory site does mention who the producers are:
A small newly plated tea farm up in the foothills of Himalaya at 3500 feet in the extreme interiors of Arunachal Pradesh has been planted by Mr Tabem in 2011 in a patch of land where he used to cultivate vegetable. Arunachal is a very thinly populated state, therefore the whole farm is looked after by Mr Tabem and his family right from plucking to processing. The farm is surrounded by rivers on 2 sides and covered by dense forests on all the sides. We have set up a micro tea processing unit in 2018 which also serves as the first experimental station for our Arunachal chapter. It does produce a very distinct cup of Black tea.
That was distinctive, not so different than Assam, but not identical. And pretty good tea for an early attempt at growing and processing; round off a touch of rough edge and it's up there with the most exceptional orthodox Assam (even though it's not Assam).
Mandal Gaon, Darjeeling
A lush green tea village on the mountain slopes of the Himalaya in Darjeeling at 5500 ft above sea level, known as Mandal Gaon. Like any other small tea grower in Darjeeling Mr Moktan also used to sell green leaves to the nearby tea factory but he hardly had any control over the price. With the liberalisation of the tea plantation laws in Darjeeling, Moktan also took to tea plantation organically.
Even if someone isn't interested in local producer Assam versions those web-page stories are interesting, each covering a bit of a local development history of tea production and processing. Again if this is an early attempt at tea processing (relatively speaking) it's an impressive one. Tweaking brewing process for both these teas would probably lead to slightly better results, and both were really nice as it was.
Mandal Gaon tea growing (credit the Tea Leaf Theory site)
I would like to include more about their business model, how they sell teas, and what they're trying to do, but it seems to work to leave this post as an introduction that lets two tea versions speak for themselves. I'll put together a pictures post and get Upamanyu to add detailed captions, and he can add a few sentences about mission statement or whatever else there.
He does have a blog section in his site, but most of that is about tea history, at least so far. A subject I've been exploring lately is how old tea production is in Assam, which it is very difficult to turn up clear answers for. No matter what details someone would identify there seems to be a reasonable chance that other historical input might tell a different story. It seems clear enough that tea was not only growing but also was produced as both a food and beverage in Assam long before the 1830s when the British ramped up tea production there.
Here is Upamanyu's blog post input on parts of that story:
Contrary to the popular misconception, tea was not really an “imported/foreign” crop, but is an indigenous plant of India. If not for thousands of years, tea has been an integral part for atleast 900 years in different parts of India, the most prominent regions being Arunachal Pradesh & Assam which are the homeland for Singphos, the tribe which has been drinking tea since the 12th century...
...There have been documented evidences from the medieval period during which the Singpho King had offered “dark liquid brewed from local wild tea plants” as medicinal drinks to Dutch & Portuguese travelers. This further vindicates the stand that tea, if not as a beverage, has been in use in India as a medicinal drink for hundreds of years...
That's probably not going to be the final, most developed version of that history (and reference citation doesn't clearly justify those points), but this matches my hearsay-based understanding that a deeper tea history did occur. Even that content matches what I've ran across.
They also mention selling a Singhpo falap in their site, they just don't really list product details, or anything like cost. I tried a version of that for the first time recently (here), and it was more positive and interesting than I expected. I thought it would be like a bitter, astringent, smoky form of sheng, but it was really in between sheng and hei cha character, warmer and softer, and more complex in a novel way. I'm not sure about the Tea Leaf Theory version; of course I mean the one that I tried.
I'll probably be focusing more on developments in the local Indian tea industries over the past decade in further material from Upamanyu, along with letting the tea aspects tell part of that modern story. But it's still interesting background context, that forgotten-history theme, and the details that do turn up.