Sikkim left, Manipur right, in all photos
Susmit of Ketlee sent a number of interesting and novel Indian teas to try and so far I've only reviewed an Indian (Manipur) version of sheng (which as I see it is a description that doesn't invoke a GI conflict until you also call it "pu'er," which not a convention everyone else would agree on). These are two Indian oolongs.
Indian oolong is a strange concept, since most often that's used to describe a moderately oxidized version of black tea, not something processed similar to Chinese or Taiwanese oolong, or similar in outcome. Which is fine, to me; I tend to not get hung up on concept specifics. That same kind of concern can make it hard to identify Darjeeling first flush versions, which tend to be called black teas sometimes, when they're not really that oxidized, or those might not be assigned any main category designation.
I don't see it as important where I personally stand on calling any medium level oxidized tea oolong; people can use or reject concept use in any ways they like. For vendor branding it's a little different because that has to be both descriptive, giving potential customers an idea of what to expect, and positive, related to hopefully leading towards sales.
Years back Indian oolong was a more novel concept, and now people are just living with it, or else avoiding it. Kind of off the subject but Halmari (a main Assam producer) does a really nice Indian oolong that seems a lot like second flush Darjeeling, so really more in the range of black tea oxidation, or at least they did a few years ago. That's a complete miss for style but to me positive outcome more than makes up for that. It's hard to compare across years and levels of background experience but these are probably the next level up for tea quality, really better than I expected them to be.
before buying a phone with a slightly better camera, 4 years ago (that Halmari oolong post)
Sikkim: it's closer to Darjeeling than I expected, that orange / muscatel range. It's not really a close match for a first or second flush version, kind of in between related to oxidation level (as I suppose it should be, given the oolong theme). It's interesting how the bright, fresh, floral and intense range of first flush Darjeeling comes across, and also the deeper, warmer, citrus (and perhaps touch of grape) black-tea of second flush Darjeeling is also included. It's a lot of scope. Flavors are really clean, and feel is nice, with a touch of "greener" range astringency and the warmer base (I mean the flavors that usually connect to feel ranges, and also those feel ranges).
Setting aside comparison to Darjeeling it's just floral and fruit intensive. Indian oolong can be open to criticism for not seeming like Chinese versions, and this doesn't, but it's pleasant on its own.
Manipur: a lot of points go to this for novelty; you don't drink it and think of how it's just like some other tea range. An aromatic spice note stands out a lot, towards root beer or sassafras. The feel is cool too, in a way that matches, really creamy. It's like how vanilla is creamy in feel, just not quite that thick. Flavors are pretty clean, and complexity is good, with a nice aftertaste carrying over from that novel spice range.
There's some woodiness beyond the spice; someone might see that as a flaw but I don't. It connects well with the spice, and it's a novel form of wood, like a creamy and light version of tree sap. Some of these kinds of comments are probably more accessible to people who spent childhoods splitting wood for heating a home in temperate climates. I can picture the bark type this smells like, or like the sap inside that tree, but I've lost track of most tree types long ago. A warm edge is nice, or rather the way it covers range that's light, fresh, and sweet and then also a warmer range. It could be interpreted as a mineral base, or just as a tree bark flavor. To me that spice tone is really catchy.
To me this also doesn't seem like a Chinese oolong (or Taiwanese, etc.), but I'm fine with that, it's what I expected.
Sikkim, second infusion: this is really nice, it just might seem too much like a Darjeeling to someone. I don't remember that I've ever tried any Sikkim area tea before; it would seem odd if that close match is normal. There's one distinctive dry, edgy feel and sweet floral and citrus range flavor of first flush Darjeeling and this includes it. I suppose some of that citrus might apply more to second flush, but it's not a broad variation of theme, tying to a later harvest season and related processing style instead.
Sweetness, balance, complexity, feel, intensity: it's all good. That one flower stem tasting (and dry feel) aspect might not appeal to everyone, but for people into Darjeeling it would.
Manipur: again for novelty this is way beyond the other; the earlier round's complexity filled in some, along with some depth, but it wasn't thin or lacking range or intensity that first round. I think floral tone picks up a little in relation to that spice. It's a sweet, creamy floral range, not so far off plumeria, maybe just slightly warmer. It's possible a touch of dryness ramps up too, or a little more body. To me all that works well with the spice range; it makes perfect sense together. It's a little hard to place in relation to any conventional oolong; it's just not like standard types and versions. The other version seems more like an Indian tea just set to medium for oxidation level, but again like Darjeeling. This is novel.
Sikkim, third infusion: evolving a bit; the citrus picks up, and tone warms. The dry edge is dropping back a bit, moving to richer feel. It's the best it has been, but that earlier mix worked for me too. It makes it seem a bit more distinctive. This would probably work well brewed fast and quite light; I've been infusing these for a bit over 10 seconds, and a very light round would be different, shifting what comes across. Flavor intensity is nice in this; it would seem normal for a tea version with this much flavor intensity, across this particular range, to be a lot stronger in dry astringency feel than this is.
Manipur: this doesn't increase in intensity, or shift in character much. There is an intensity and depth to this sweetness and spice range that's a little like star anise, the way that's so strong, and so sweet, with that much aftertaste range.
To me that spice is hard to dial in to a right level, so I usually don't use it in masala chai, or haven't added it to one for many years. I skipped making masala chai last year; strange, given how much time I spent at home. We were traveling a lot in the last half of the year within Thailand, and I tend to pretend that weather has cooled in the temperate Northern climate fall and winter, even though it's really always hot here. It's 31 C now, tasting this outside at noon, 88 F, not so hot for us but not cool. "Real Feel" is 38 in the shade and 41 in the sun (100 or 105), and I'm in the sun but under cloud cover. They go too far with that correction; high humidity is normal here. I noticed there was plenty of light to give the pictures a slightly washed out look; so it goes.
This tastes more like star anise, to be clear; it's not just the effect matching that a bit. I suppose to some extent it did earlier too, but it's impossible to miss in this round.
Sikkim, fourth infusion: thinned a little for trying this lighter, but it does still work like that. If there was more astringency to work around dropping intensity like that would make more sense, but it wasn't too strong at an infusion strength more typical for me. Sweetness is still really nice, and flavor intensity is ok, just thinner in comparison.
Manipur: kind of the same as the other; it's interesting trying both light, but it doesn't necessarily work better. It's funny how sweetness level is pronounced in both, and flavor strength is still fine, just seeming quite light and a little thin in comparison. If I hadn't been blasting my senses with sheng pu'er for the last few years there's a good chance this is how I would always drink tea now, at a lighter intensity than I typically do.
For dabbling in tisanes again a bit now it's interesting how this complexity, intensity, and feel edge is impossible to mimic in a tisane, no matter what you drink or how those are blended, even with these brewed light. I can still appreciate tisanes but it's hard to not see that as a gap, like one or more parts are missing. It's strange saying that mixing herbs with tea can work to cover both concerns, adding new flavor range and also keeping some of that feel and range. I don't try that often now, but some.
Sikkim, fifth infusion: I'll close with some final thoughts this round; it's enough. I'll brew this back up at what is a normal infusion strength for me, more like 20 seconds of time this round. It's similar to before, nicely balancing the same range in a similar way. It's nice how that dry edge easing up fell into a really nice balance. This is still dead-center between first and second flush Darjeeling character. I doubt they were going for that, but if so they nailed it. This flavor cleanness, intensity, complexity, etc. is pleasant, or impressive even. This more than holds its own with most Darjeeling I've tried.
Manipur: thinning just a bit; some of the body is pulling back. Flavor is still just as intense, maybe coming across stronger for part of the range thinning. If someone hated star anise this really wouldn't work for them, but it's better than star anise for moderating that flavor, and that cloying sweet edge. It's still definitely pronounced in both the flavor while you drink it and the aftertaste.
Good teas! I'm not so sure about the "oolong" part but these match what I've experienced of Indian oolong in the past, novel and pleasant backed-off oxidation level teas. Quality stands out as exceptional for both; there is no trace of any flaws in either, and a broad range of positive aspects.
I suppose the Sikkim seeming like Darjeeling seemed to detract from the novelty factor for me, but it's not as if I'm drinking Darjeeling every week. For those familiar with Gopaldhara Darjeelings I don't mean like those, the blast of fruit they tend to include. This one included more of that distinctive floral range and flower stem taste, along with the citrus, which may or may not overlap with muscatel flavor (which is not how I interpreted it, but maybe).
They are better teas than I expected. Experimental versions just don't get to this level, and it takes established producers years of hard work to achieve the same. Maybe starting with great plant material gave them an edge, or maybe these are far from early trial rounds. It's a little late to get to it but I can also include Ketlee's description of these for completeness:
Sikkim Spring Oolong Tea (2021 version)
[Editing note: the first posted draft included the wrong link and version description, amended here]
Harvested during early spring, this is the fourth batch of the 2021 harvest. Of course, this tea is made at one of our favourite estates, the Bermiok Tea Estate...
The leaves were shade withered for 24 hours after which it was bruised by hand for oxidation. They are then hand roasted and rolled before the final drying...
...The liquor has a hint of flowery notes, particularly sweet yellow flower notes. As you sip the tea and it cools down, the fruity notes come to the foreground and there is an abundance of cantaloupe, Indian pear and ripe peach notes. There is also a hint of malt during the initial infusions but the fruity part dominates the profile. The astringency is minimal, just present to greet you at the finish...
Not really much match to this post description, but that's how review interpretations go. Floral and fruit range interpretations can parallel but it's normal for people to cite different range of flower types or fruits. It seems a good value, listing for $20 for 100 grams.
After more than two years of offering exclusively old tree teas from Manipur, we are very excited to bring something new from the region, wild teas from young bushes! Processed exactly like our old tree oolong(2020 Ball Rolled Wild Oolong)...
...The first infusion brings an interesting sweetness resembling the aftertaste of fennel seed along with a spice note dominant in cloves. The second infusion is another interesting one, with notes of lemongrass, vanilla and caramel. The third infusion is rich in sweetness with honey and black raisin notes, there is also a woody undertone to it. There is a mild astringency as well which makes this complex liquor even more refreshing. To us, this astringency along with wood and citrus notes make it seem a lot more closer to assamica teas from various parts of India. While the old tree teas are also of the assamica variety, it clearly has a taste of its own and does not taste like any other assamica we find here. The fourth infusion has even more sweetness with notes of muscat grapes, honey, damp wood and caramel...
Per usual actual tasting notes vary, but we are in agreement that there's an interesting, novel, and primary spice note being expressed in this, along with pleasant sweetness and complexity, and a supporting woody undertone. I'm not so sure about the citrus part but I bet if I kept tasting this I would unpack some of what they identified as dried fruit range, versus seeing that as a warm floral tone. That spice stood out as so novel it made it hard to kind of "get past" experiencing and explaining it.
They sell this for more than double the other version, $28 for 100 grams, and it really is that much more novel. Although the Sikkim version is unique too, so there wouldn't be a market price that's easy to identify, this version is really different. This doesn't claim to be organic but it wouldn't make sense to spray pesticides on tea plants growing naturally in the forest; it doesn't work like that.
out running errands, nice to pick up those donuts again
the view from my office building, not quite as iconic from that angle