Just to clarify – Orthodox Nilgiri teas that are produced in winter are withered with warm air (“hard wither”) before rolling and oxidation stages. This hard wither is the same technique that causes many Darjeelings to wind up with really green leaves – especially in the first flush – because the forced warm air is actually enough to effectively denature some of the polyphenol oxidase inside the leaves. For a really long time everyone’s just gone ahead and called these tease black teas since they are processed as such; leaves are withered, bruised/rolled, oxidized, and dried. Lately, with many groups throughout India experimenting with producing other types of teas, some of these hard-wither teas are being promoted as oolongs since they have intermediate levels of oxidation and have the capacity to produce similarly fruity aromatic characteristics and potentially smooth mouthfeel compared to other teas produced from the same estates. I take a little bit of an issue with this in most cases, since the teas typically come off as more of a blend of green tea and black/red tea, and the flavor certainly follows suit with vibrant flavors and levels of astringency I associate easily with these groups of teas but not really oolongs. To sort through the rather murky distinction between red teas and oolongs, for my purposes I categorize a tea as a red/black tea if the leaves are intentionally and purposefully rolled/bruised/kneaded/macerated to the point of internal leaf damage and expelling a significant amount of leaf components to the surface so as to oxidize both internally and externally whilst oolongs are bruised with the intent to perform intermediate levels of oxidation within each leaf. A long winded explanation for sure, but it helps in making sense of red/black teas that have a considerable amount of green leaf material and separating out very dark oolongs. I’m not saying that Indian teas classed as oolongs are not necessarily such, nor am I asserting that oolongs from elsewhere are actually red teas because of expelled leaf juices or homogenous oxidation levels on a per leaf basis – I’m simply saying that we ought to consider the intents in processing more than looking at the dry leaves and saying “hmm, this looks more green so let’s call it a different kind of tea.” With these iffy groups, however, I do have a tendency to poke around and open up the infused leaves to try to get a feel of how oxidation progressed within or outside of the leaves.
Whew. Now that I’ve got my corporate litigation-style semantics safety net under me, shall we actually taste and evaluate something?
This here’s a tea I was just about to tell the owners of the company I work for that we ought to buy and start offering at retail. I have this nice big two-pound bag sitting next to me and as I was listing its existence on Steepster, I go to ITI’s catalog and discover they’ve sold out and removed the listing. Now I’ve got a big fat monkey wrench in my maniacal plot to improve the cafe’s tea selection. Harumph. Maybe I’ll get lucky and it will pop back on after this February’s harvest/production is all said and done with, but I have the feeling it won’t make its way to ITI’s catalog ‘til at least May even if I’m super lucky in that regard.
It is not the best frost tea around, but it is freakishly awesome for the price. You could kinda argue that for many Nilgiri frost teas, though, since the price tag never seems to rise beyond the level of representative quality as is so common with Darjeelings. This is a really tasty tea, and I’m pretty bummed I won’t be selling it anytime soon.
Nilgiri teas are more and more frequently being labelled “Darjeeling Style” or listed as oolongs. This was one of the few cases where neither ended up in the official name of the tea but popped into the so called “description” made available by the importer. I assert that this is certainly Darjeeling-esque and is more akin to an oolong than most of what I’ve tasted from the region, but I’m firmly lumping this as a red/black tea. Mayhap I could create a category called “orange” teas for these Indian offerings to describe the color and just screw with everyone (we all love using the word in tea leaf size grading anyway, don’t we? hahaha).
As for actual coloration, there’s actually a whole lotta purple in these leaves. Leaf size is highly variable, from a couple millimeters up to a couple centimeters. Here and there are some leaf bits that are really green, though these are mostly just the remnant midvein and the leaf portion is ripped off within 1mm from it. These infrequent green bits are particularly brittle and look really similar to the color and quality of the older leaves in a lower-end Bai Mu Dan sample, though obviously twisted. The majority of leaves are smallish, mostly intact or halved leaves twisted and exhibiting a red-orange vein with either very dark mossy green-black or reddish brown leaf material with a hard-to-see-around gray cast reflection. Backing off and looking upon a mass with blurred eyes, the tea looks dark purple with a lavender reflection and red-violet highlights. Picking up a single leaf at random, you’d most likely pick up something that looks like a leaf from a Phoenix Oolong in miniature.
When Infused, there’s a lot more yellow and green alongside orangey brown. While oxidation is variable from leaf to leaf, close scrutiny of each individual leaf shows pretty darned homogenous coloration of the leaf material with the veins and stems mostly coming off as reddish (on the really green leaves they are olive yellow-brown). Very few leaves reach the level of red/brown of an Assam, Autumnal Darjeeling, or Chinese Red – pretty much only the stems and smallest broken bits. For the most part, leaves are greenish brown with a faint tracing of yellow and red on the very edge of the margins (both where breakage occurred and on serrations of the leaf).
The Liquor is super transparent and bright orange. More on the yellow-orange side, but not by much… Definitely closer to the color of a lighter Second Flush Darjeeling or darker First Flush than the bright red-orange of many frost teas I’ve had.
Dry Fragrance is plummy. Red plums – especially the skin. A bit of oak barrel that’s held a softer wine in it and some faint tulip as well. Not nearly as heady as some other frost teas, but pleasant. Take the fragrance of a mellow Second Flush Darjeeling and mix in some toasted pumpkin seeds and you’ll be pretty close to this guy, though I associate that tulip-like quality pretty steadfastly with Southern Indian teas. Very faint cocoa hint.
Wet Leaf Aroma is actually really pleasant and toasty. Again, faint cocoa here, but mostly tulip and sort of a hybrid of grilled zucchini and plum/peach. Light woody spice note in there make me think coriander, but it’s just a light accent.
Liquor aroma dissipates before the liquid cools, so it starts pretty full and ratchets way down to very slight while still warm. Tulips, uncut yellow peach, dried orange peel, raw yellow squash. Light, comforting toastiness is there, but it’s difficult to assign a similarity to it… Kinda like rye bread or the smell of sedges in a freshwater seasonal marsh that has dried up. Stay tuned for more aroma…
When brewed at 2g/100mL for 3 min in near-boiling water (heated to 97C) you get a dramatically different flavor expression than using different times or concentration. More leaves really pushes tangy notes of peach pit while less is more squashy, though in this tea it is very easy to add hot water to the liquor to modulate flavor from a hyper-concentrated brew. Temp below 85C makes for pretty lacking flavors, so the only reason to cut it before a boil is avoid boiled-water flatness and make it easier to avoid the astringency that easily pops up when brewed too long. Flavor changes resultant of brewing an extra 30 seconds to a minute can not be mitigated easily as when concentration is augmented.
When brewed at my preferred parameter set, this has a decent body, light briskness prompting me to consider it relatively smooth overall when drunk and bright when aerated/slurped, and a great steady progression of flavors and afteraromas. Mild peach and tulip/carnation. Oak-like tannic acidity. That nice toasty character melded with the fruit make this like a Bai Hao Oolong with more snap and a tad less body. There’s a bit of citrus (like dried orange peel with another hit of orange oil – no citrus juice at all) and wood, but the tastes are rather compressed up front and then they quickly give way. The great bulk of character of the tea is experienced after swallowing, as a huge host of aromas linger in the mouth. While I could try and parse these into individual characters, really they work in harmony to produce a shifting combined expression that moves from toasted bread/pastry to potpourri, to the smell of a field of wildflowers on a warm day (or a bouquet with some dried flowers mixed with fresh ones), and finishing with a progression of light flavors of cornbread, citron, calendula, and a faint lingering tulip or rose. It isn’t ‘til the end of the progression that the flavors in the aftertaste become really discrete and easily taken apart, but there really isn’t a need to tear apart the characteristics that make up the lovely medley at the beginning, right after swallowing. A secondary sweetness washes over the palate at the end of the aftertaste. Really pleasant and comforting, though only really obvious after you finish a cup so it feels like your finishing draught is sort of teasing you that you are out. Consequently, I went and had to brew another round of this (two sets of two infusions each total).
Alas, this is not a very durable tea in terms of multiple infusions. The third infusion is pleasant, but not nearly as exciting as the first two. When tasting this tea, I find myself progressing with the first infusion at 3 minutes, the second infusion at 4 minutes, prepare a third infusion for continuous brewing while I heat up fresh water for a new first and second infusion with fresh tea. Doesn’t really help to bump the concentration and brew really short, either, as it sort of leaves you with a whole bunch of pleasant infusions that are lacking the harmonious combinations of flavors achieved in the longer, lower concentration infusion.
Hmm, I guess I’d better go find another frost tea to taste against this. The group of teas are the more difficult to brew and expensive end of the Nilgiris, but it’s kind of a joke to call a Nilgiri expensive or difficult to brew, since even the most pricey (still relatively cheap) orthodox ones out there tend to make up for it in character and they all seem far easier to brew than most high elevation teas. Wish I could sell this in the cafe, but that’s how things go, isn’t it?