Nepal is a remarkable little country. Nestled in the high Himalayas with fertile lowlands in the south, Nepal has spectacular landscape and a rich history and culture. I attended a tasting of tea from Nepal at the World Tea Expo and I was not disappointed. Perhaps that’s because Darjeeling tea is one of my favorites, and Nepal borders on the Indian district of Darjeeling.
While location is not the only factor that determines the taste of tea, it is important. Nigel Melican, managing director of Teacraft, and knowledgeable about growing tea, was also at the tea tasting. He explained to me how one would start a new plantation. “You plant cuttings from established tea plants, of the type you want to grow. It takes about six years for them to mature. Then, you hope it tastes like you expect.” The flavor of the end product depends on the kind of plant you start with, on the soil and the weather, and finally on the picking and processing.
Even the time of year of picking makes a difference in taste. When the leaves first sprout in the spring, that’s the “first flush” which is said to contain the most antioxidants and has a bright, lively taste. About a month later (depending on climate and weather) the plants sprout leaves again, the “second flush,” which is mellower. In the Indian subcontinent there’s another flush in monsoon season, and another one again in autumn when the plants bloom. Each flush has its distinctive character. Tea blends often contain several different flushes to round out the taste and color.
There are about 18,000 tea farmers in Nepal, and the average tea plot is only 0.6 acres. The average age of Nepal’s tea gardens is 15 years, relatively young. About 2.5 million kilograms (5.5 million pounds) of tea were exported from Nepal in 2010. I asked Nepal tea expert Udaya Chapagain what is most important to know about Nepal tea. “Nepal tea is grown by ethnic farmers in remote villages,” he said. “It’s grown far from sources of pollution and on a small scale so each farmer can invest time in every plant.”
Seven different kinds of tea were presented at the tasting, a delicious white tea (from the Himalayan Shangri-la Tea Producers), some green tea, and black (orthodox and CTC). All were good, but my clear favorites were the orthodox black teas. They can easily compete with Darjeeling teas for subtlety and flavor.
These excellent Nepal black teas were graded “SFTGFOP” which does not really stand for (as some jokers might tell you) “Simply Far Too Good For Ordinary People.” Instead, those letters actually mean “Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe.” The grading system for tea is worth some study, and is different in China. There are several basic grades of tea: leaves, broken, and fannings or dust. “BOP” or broken orange pekoe is a relatively low grade for loose leaf tea, which still might be quite good. The grades for better tea add more impressive adjectives in front of the “OP.” Fannings are used in tea bags to brew quickly. For more complete information, see Jane Pettigrew’s summary of tea grading at Tea House Times if you haven’t already.
As I am writing this, the temperature in Las Vegas is headed for the triple digits and I am drinking iced tea. It was brewed hot and then poured over ice. The tea leaves are from Sri Lanka, often considered best for iced tea. Because the phrase ‘Ceylon tea’ has been repeated so often, I have to make a mental effort to convert it to Sri Lanka tea. Sri Lanka growers often keep the tag ‘Ceylon tea’ in their ads. Many other kinds of tea can also be enjoyed over ice but today I’m going with the classic. But let me tell you about the exhibits at the Expo!
The heart of the World Tea Expo is the exhibition room. There I found somewhere between two and three hundred booths featuring all sorts of tea and tea-related products. Tea growers, tea brewing devices, tea beverages, trade journals, books, tea bag machines… I couldn’t stop at each one, but here are a few of the booths and products that caught my attention.
At the Sugimoto America booth I talked, via interpreter, with Japanese tea maestro Hiroyaki Sugimoto. He attributes the longevity of people in Japan to green tea, processed by steaming. There are various types of Japanese green tea. For example, genmai-cha is made with roasted rice and has a hearty flavor. It’s a good green tea to start with if you’ve never had green tea before. Sencha is a good quality green tea, and Gyokuro is green tea grown in shade, which makes it sweeter. Bancha is a common grade of green tea. Matcha is a finely-ground green tea produced for the Japanese tea ceremony. If you brew green tea, be certain to use water below the boiling point, 140 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit (61 to 87 degrees Celsius), depending on the particular tea. If green tea is brewed at too high a temperature it will be bitter and astringent. Tea from a good supplier often comes with optimum brewing time and temperature directions.
Black tea, of course, is brewed with water at the boiling point for 3 to 5 minutes. No fancy equipment is needed. I prefer a tea strainer or a teapot. For stronger tea, add more tea rather than steeping for a longer time, as steeping too long also makes black tea bitter and astringent. If your only tea experience is from a teabag, you owe it to yourself to try brewing loose leaf tea. Once you do, several experts I talked to agree — you may never want to use a teabag again.
One of the experts I’m quoting is Bruce Richardson, owner of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas in Perryville, Kentucky. Mr. Richardson is coauthor, with Jane Pettigrew, of The New Tea Companion, a tea reference book. He has also written an introduction and an additional chapter for a new expanded edition of the classic “The Book of Tea” by Okakura Kakuzo. I talked with him about the difference between tea made from teabags and tea made from loose tea. He compared it to the difference between inexpensive Bourbon and a high-quality one (Perryville is in Bourbon country). He writes a column for Tea Time, a popular magazine about tea, where he recently debunked some myths. For example, he notes that green tea doesn’t necessarily have less caffeine than black tea.
LongRun Tea, based in China, has Pu-Erh tea in large and small cakes. To brew the tea you break apart the cakes and add boiling water. Pu-Erh teas are said to get better with age (we’re talking years, here) which is different from regular tea that slowly loses flavor over time. (So keep your regular tea in a tightly sealed container, and use it within a year or so of purchase.)
Pottery Avenue features simply beautiful hand-decorated one-of-a-kind pottery (including teapots) from Poland.
Runa Amazon Guayusa (pronounced gwhy-you-sa) is a tisane from a holly bush relative of yerba mate, but doesn’t have the smoky flavor that yerba mate generally does. That’s a plus, in my opinion. Guayusa is also said to be higher in antioxidants than green tea, with more caffeine than tea (but less caffeine than coffee, per cup). The plant grows in Ecuador. In addition to the traditional brew, Runa offers three flavored guayusa blends: peppermint, spice (with cinnamon and lemongrass), and ginger citrus (with ginger and orange peel).
Thistledown Cozies, by Annalise Pitt in New Hampshire, has some frilly, feminine tea cozies… but also a selection of more masculine no-nonsense style tea cozies geared to men who like tea and want to keep the teapot warm without having to resort to a frou-frou cozy.
The Artful Penguin features utensils such as tea balls, uniquely decorated with beads and stones by Sheryl Konnerth. Her best sellers, however, are forks that appear to be giving you “the finger.” It’s difficult not to laugh when you see them (but be careful when giving them as gifts).
If you want to try tea from Nepal, or Kenya, or anyplace else for that matter, first try your local tea shop. In Las Vegas, Teavana fits the bill with two locations, in Fashion Mall and Town Square. At Teavana you can try samples right at the store. Not every tea shop may have tea from Nepal, though. Or if you are far from any tea shop, there are always online stores. Upton Tea, International Tea Importers, and Rishi Tea are among the reputable online sources for a wide variety of tea. On the other hand, if you’d like to buy directly from a single tea estate in India, try Glenburn Tea Direct. They are also on Facebook (just search Facebook for “Glenburn Tea Direct”). Or if you want to buy from a Ceylon/Sri Lanka grower with consistently award-winning iced tea, try the Walters Bay Bogawantalawa Estates.
According to people at the Expo, these days tea is hot and specialty teas are a growing business (no puns intended). I felt very fortunate to be able to attend the Expo, since the general public doesn’t get to see it. I learned a lot about tea, but there’s still so much more. Finally, it all comes down to this: tea is to be enjoyed. Click here to read another article about the 2011 Tea Expo.
Now I’m going to relax with a nice cup of Nepal tea.