Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Tea Stories and a Thai Grown Black Tea

I learned something about tea stories when I picked up a kilo of a black tea from Meisile in Northern Thailand. The mountainside village of Meisile was founded by ex-Guomindang (KMT) soldiers who were pushed out of Yunnan by the communists in the ‘40s and fought their way into a high altitude alcove where they began to grow opium. When the Thai government tightened their regulations on the opium trade, they switched to tea, and with their access to Taiwanese education, citizenship and tea knowledge they became relatively settled.

The farmer who really struck my fancy, Mr. Zhu, produces an organic, coarse black tea. He doesn’t make the best stuff in the world, but he’s proud of it and he cares about producing stuff that makes people happy. The dry leaves are pretty gnarly and very light weight. I think he may be picking further down the branch to get some of the uglier leaves, but I don’t know. Reminds me a bit of a gnarly Autumn picking bancha I drank once, but this has much more laid back body feeling. He uses two varietals, Assam and Jin Xuan (Taiwan #12), and processes them together to yield a black tea with the funkiness of a dark assam, but the Taiwanese body and sweet aroma of a Jin Xuan. I need to really stuff the pot to get any chunkiness out of the tea, but once I stuff the pot it holds up to countless infusions and doesn’t impact my sleep, but gives me a warm/rich but also vigorous energy. I’m not really a mixer, but I’ve been throwing in a few plateau chrysanthemum flowers in the pot. It pairs pretty well!

The tea has a story, and that’s what makes me enjoy drinking it even though it doesn’t knock my socks off. It reminds me of Mr. Zhu, a snag hanging out of the side of his mouth, explaining to me that opium isn’t all bad long as you don’t turn it into heroin. He also said of Thai people that his grandpa told him their soldiers were very cute because they would cower behind a hill to avoid the KMT, that his grandpa would sniff them out without having to look very hard, which is why they successfully defended their mountaintop stronghold in Thailand instead of Burma or Laos.

This brings me to the main point of bringing up this (only slightly vulgar) black tea. In my mind, tea with a story is better than tea without a story. You may call it power of suggestion or placebo, but I think it is just a lens to better connect with the tea, as long as you remember its utility as such. Making a story isn’t easy, and that’s what a good tea person can do. For example, a Taiwanese teaman and roastmaster of some repute says that a certain puer he sells has the calming energy of an older sister. This is a story, or a maybe a myth, but it helps me decode the tea in a way, because it is a very useful and pertinent myth. The same thing goes for meeting the farmer or producer of a tea, which is a different kind of story but a story nonetheless. In the same vein, I believe tasting notes are a kind of mini-story in themselves and, in relativity relegated to the diminutive ‘mini’, a useful way to decode a tea.

Anyway, I’d like to thank Mr. Zhu for the inspiration. The guy's doing good work. It’s always great to meet the real teafolk who are at the roots of our humble obsession.

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