Happy Chinese New Year! Nothing new on this end related to that; Chinese neighbors gave us a lot of gifts, and that's about it. I miss checking in with my favorite Chinatown shop, with Kittichai at Jip Eu; hopefully the pandemic exposure will keep fading here and local outings will seem safer and safer. We've been down to single digit case instances in Bangkok for awhile, so maybe we're already there.
Asian pear and a glutinous rice item that is hard to classify
I've reviewed plenty of other samples from this Darjeeling set before, so this is about mixing up my own experience, getting back to reviewing, and clearing through experiencing the last of those (there's one left I probably won't get to; close enough). These might be the most interesting yet, for one having the designation "rare" in the name, and the other sounding interesting. Like a buds based black tea, maybe?
It's cool out today, maybe around 26 C (around 77 F, I suppose). It has been interesting hearing about a cold snap in Texas where it's just below freezing, where that never happens (I had lived in Dallas and Austin before; a long story). Temperatures in the high teens here (C, mid-60s F) would already be an unheard of cold spell, at least for Bangkok. It's just nice that it's not hot, at least not in the morning. I'll try these outside to experience the weather that much closer, not that the house isn't plenty open and breezy.
Sai Tong visiting not far from where I do the tasting and writing
Rare Emperor's Choice left and Golden Tips right (in all photos)
These teas look and smell fantastic as dry versions. The Emperor's Choice version looks a lot like an Oriental Beauty, that distinctive mix of different colors, and twisted leaves. The Golden Tips looks like a bud-heavy black tea. It smells just as complex and sweet, just a little deeper and richer in range, trading out some tangy citrus fruit scent tones for warmer ones. They should be great.
It's funny how every single Gopaldhara (/ Rohini) paired review turned out to contrast oxidation levels and styles. That wasn't intentional; I've just picked these kind of randomly. Of course the relatively opposite approach makes more sense, matching style as closely as possible, to zero in on finer level differences through comparison, versus just relating how both are pleasant in different ways.
Rare Emperor's Choice: absolutely exceptional, and this will bump in intensity for fully saturating the next round. It's heavy on citrus but not in a truly conventional first or second flush sense; it's not really the bright, tangy, almost lemony citrus of a first flush or the heavy muscatel grape / citrus more typical of second flush style. It's complex, adjoining a lot of other range. Not so far off Oriental Beauty style, really, more related to complexity and some of the flavor range than the entire character. Oxidation level is typically higher for those, pushing the limit of oolong towards black tea, but that can vary a good bit. This is listed as "minimal oxidation level," so not at the far side of oolong range.
I should do the full flavor list description next round, once intensity bumps up, but it's clear where this is going, with lots of fruit range leaning a bit towards spice standing out. It's not astringent at all but a very mild and well integrated version of that one typical Darjeeling flavor is present. It's really a set of flavors, a combined profile, spanning citrus, mineral, and other scope.
Golden Tips: this is great too, completely within black tea range. Not so much typical second flush range, the heavy muscatel, but warmer and deeper. It's not malty in the same sense Assam is, most of it at least, but the way a milder version of that adjoins other warmth, fruit, mineral undertone (a warmer version) is common with the best orthodox versions of Assam, tea types that only a very few producers are making.
The range of good orthodox Assam is broader, lots of interesting and pleasant styles, but as I interpret it some few are closer to Chinese black tea character. This could almost pass for a really good version of Lapsang Souchong, one far too good to ever be touched up with smoke. The trace of malt edge is different, but the fruit, warmth, and underlying mineral tone is close. Again I'll make the next round a straight flavor list.
Rare Emporer's Choice: a touch of Darjeeling-typical flavor set picked up a little. In lots of Darjeeling samples that's paired with an astringency that one needs to "brew around," adjusting temperature and timing to get that to drop out, to the extent that's possible. Not for this version; it's more just the flavor input, a distinct citrus and mineral range, with that feel softer and full.
It is really close to Oriental Beauty range, including plenty of citrus, towards muscatel / grape, warmth that's leaning towards cinnamon spice but not quite that particular flavor, and mineral edge. The citrus alone seems to be complex. One part is a little bright, towards tangerine, but the range covers the sweet and rich depth of orange marmalade, with a similar flavor (orange peel versus tangerine) deepened and adjusted by immersion in sugar and thickener.
The brighter range is quite close to the Chinese / Mandarin oranges I've been eating a lot of lately, not due to Chinese New Year so much, just because I buy those whenever I see them. Complex citrus is definitely the main range, but the rest makes that work better, adding complexity, shifting context for that experience. Mineral especially maybe, which doesn't lend itself to clear description. It's like tasting a light colored rock, not flinty, but not quite as warm as the typical Southwest US reddish sandstone.
Golden Tips: it's funny how much this seems like a Chinese black tea to me. I don't mean to imply a hierarchy by that, claiming that better Chinese black teas are just better, although I am primarily a Chinese tea drinker. Chinese black tea range is a favorite of mine, up there with appreciating sheng pu'er and oolongs (all really broad categories, of course). There is some fruit present in this tea, probably closest to citrus, or mostly including that, but making that call is less certain. This could really be interpreted in lots of different ways; although the flavor profile isn't that broad it is complex. It leans towards floral range too, something like rose. I'm not seeing it exactly that way but interpretation as dried dark cherry might make sense.
Given a lot of flavor is heavier it's back to pinning down what that black tea scope tastes like; dark wood, cured leather, tree bark that includes a spice aspect, something along that line. Cocoa plus root spice, covering a range, isn't so far off. Mineral stands out in this too but a much warmer, deeper tone. It's all really clean, true for both of these teas. Feel structure and aftertaste are fine, notable, but for spanning a broad flavor range in one tasting session I tend to focus most on that flavor scope, both in terms of comparison and contrast.
Initially I had planned to leave off here, since late-round transitions tend to shift less for these styles, in my opinion. These are not even half finished, so there would be more story to tell, but it should be more about proportion of what I've already mentioned shifting, something picking up and something else fading. Versions this good stretch out for extra infusions well, and I might keep pushing them to get 10 rounds from them. I did add notes for a fourth round too though, based on how much these are transitioning.
Sheng pu'er intensity is nice for the really fast infusions and strength of the tea letting you go further, all the way to 15 rounds or so, depending on parameters and preference, but oolongs and Chinese black teas are similar to these in that regard. For Cindy's oolongs (Wuyi Origin versions) I might not give up on them until really long infusions lose intensity, also going well past 10. Instead of relating to how they brew and intensity drops off that's about them being really positive no matter how faded they are. Simmering those might not be a bad idea.
Rare Emperor's Choice: I would keep noticing different things as I keep brewing these, with minor shifts in infusion strength letting different flavors stand out more. This was brewed a bit faster and lighter, I think, even though you can't see that in the color, and it makes a honey tone much stronger, really the dominant aspect. Higher end, brighter citrus is shifting, onto warmer tones, from fresh tangerine to dried orange peel. The deeper range picks up, moving into aromatic wood, like cedar or redwood. Maybe I should describe a fourth infusion.
Golden Tips: one catchy aspect in this reminds me a lot of Lapsang Souchong. Only people familiar with better versions of that would know what I mean. There's a set of flavors that combine that mark a better version of that type. Wuyi Origin's (Cindy's) wild version is more fruit intensive, so that's not the same, but in others there's a characteristic note or set that's more like tree bark and rich dried fruit, like tamarind, or I suppose it could be similar to a root spice aspect I'm not aware of. By tree bark I mean similar to a very specific flavor, maybe closest to birch, which I should probably skip trying to describe:
this reminded me of #3, but I've not been smelling those bark types lately
Golden Tips: it's odd how the astringency is so limited in this that the basic character isn't all that different. Feel shifts a little, and flavor and overall intensity some, but it's not astringent. This is not at all optimum preparation for this tea but still good.
I've been so focused on describing flavor aspects that I've not really did justice to the role sweetness played in overall effect, for either. An appropriate and pronounced sweetness level makes the flavor range of these teas stand out all the more, and makes them make sense. Drop that and add a bit of an odd earth or mineral character and you'd get a completely different effect, from a tea profile that's not all that different. It's rare that everything comes together in teas like this, and no accident when that happens.
It reminds me of trying to explain why Nepal teas are so exceptional. It's kind of impossible to. A distinct mineral tone is usually nice in those (which is also in these, in two other forms), and sweetness is good, and flavor intensity and complexity, often with a citrus tone leaning towards lemon in lighter versions. But you can't really list out aspects and convey why it works as it does (in versions that lack flaws, I mean). Teas being refined in character works as an example, as these are. Nothing is wrong, and complexity is good, but it's more than that, how it all comes together.
It's a little strange saying that Darjeeling is good because it's like Nepal tea, really a bit backwards, but somehow to me there might be some explanatory value in that. It's not about one region or standard form being better, but about tea versions having an overall character that transcends related but different typical styles instead. This black tea being somewhat close in character to some of the best Lapsang Souchong makes the same point. I definitely don't mean related to a smoked tea; if you've never tried an exceptional quality LS version then it's something else to get to later, if the range sounds good. This is one example of what I'm talking about.
All in all really good teas, as I would have expected, not just good but exceptionally balanced, refined, and novel. I think I did enjoy these just a little more for the slight variations from the most type-typical styles for both.