Tea. Bicycle. An Unexpected Confluence. 

by Chikashi

I enjoy tea. I am not an expert; I simply like the stuff. Not the ‘herbal’ varieties, but the Camellia sinensis varieties. Because coffee is so fashionable amongst cyclists of various stripes, I had not expected that the world of tea would overlap with the world of cycling, at least not in my sphere. Happily, it did, seemingly out of nowhere. 

I tend not to ‘talk shop’ with social contacts until I have developed some level of familiarity with that person. I cringe when I read or hear chatter about cycling being the new golf, for professional networking and advancement. I prefer to cycle with those that turn up because they want to go for a ride in the company of others, not for any motives unrelated to cycling, health or amusement. As such, I do not ask about someone’s trade until I feel I have become sufficiently familiar with that person. Of course, by that time, I tend to have picked up the information through normal chit chat within the group so I end up not needing to ask him or her what it might be.

Sometimes, such incidental discoveries take time. There’s a chap that rides regularly with a group that I occasionally join. He’s one of the group’s core members. I’ve been riding with them for a couple of years, but I only learned about his trade earlier this year. It so happens that he is a tea importer, with a family firm that got started in the 19th century.  

When you think of cycling, you think of coffee, not tea. Sometimes I get consumed by the most trivial discoveries in life.

There are tea importers and tea importers, and I didn’t know which one he is.

When spring was about to give way to summer, I was running low on tea supply at home. It was the time of year when spring harvest should be trickling into market. It seemed like a good time to suss him out.

Tea is a lot like wine in many ways. Climate and topography influence the flavour. Weather has a tremendous impact on the quality of the crop; the output varies from year to year. Each harvest, even with ideal weather, will have a range of quality. The crop must be picked and categorised with expert care. It must be steamed, fermented or both, to the right degree, not too little and not too much. The degree of care exercised by the producers depends partly on how discerning the market is.

There has been a steady decline in quality amongst many regions, even at renowned estates. If the weather does not co-operate, we don’t get good products no matter how good the producers are. However, there has clearly been some human contribution over the years. For example, it’s been quite a few years since the first flush from Darjeeling tasted like it should.

Surging demand from emerging markets brings buyers willing to pay any price for something, without understanding or caring about quality, because it’s ‘the thing to have’. I think it’s fair to say that we’ve seen that in wine, French in particular. The same has happened with tea. Producers get top money for mediocre output. So, why make the effort? I am guessing that the worst news to hit the Cuban cigar market is the US lifting the embargo. 

On a Sunday jolly in June, when we stopped for a nature break, I casually mentioned to him that it seems to be more and more difficult to find good Darjeeling these days. If he specialised in herbal and ‘detox’ nonsense and flavoured teas, he wouldn’t have anything substantive to say in reaction to my moaning. But he did. Pleasantly surprised, I was. Talking tea, on a bike, in Belgium.

Later I tell him that I’m in need of some tea. How is this year’s Gyokuro? He tells me Yame had a good crop and that he has some. I was stunned that he had any Gyokuro on hand.

I tell him that I’m also in the market for some white tea from southern China, expecting him to say he has no such thing on hand. He says he has some Yin Zhen. I thought, ‘Wot? You have Yin Zhen? You’re joking…’

And, any decent Darjeeling first flush, either SFTGFOP or FTGFOP grade? He tells me that he has a really nice batch from Tumsong. Tumsong was not familiar to me, and my ignorance had me feeling a bit suspicious. And then he proceeds to tell me that it’s a real, old guard production, what you expect a first flush to be like, from a small estate. OK, you got my attention…

 

He gave me a sample packet of Tumsong, and back at home I found that he was spot on. Darjeeling first flush as you would expect. Except it’s hardly ever available these days. It reminds me a bit of Castleton and a bit of Namring Upper when they were still producing excellent first flush many years ago. Marvellous. In this day and age, it seems even majestic.

Come autumn, I’m curious about the summer harvest, so I asked him how the second flush from Darjeeling turned out. ‘Too much rain, not enough wind, low grade crop. But I can still give you some if you want.’ OK, no second flush this year then.

Does he still have a kilo of Tumsong first flush to spare? Yes, he does. Fabulous.

Tea, cycling. Still surprised by the happy confluence…

Serving notes:

Gyokuro: 10g for every 60ml of spring water, steeped at 60°C, for 2.5 minutes 

Yin Zhen: 5g for every 200ml of spring water, steeped at 80°C, for 2-4 minutes 

Darjeeling first flush: 3.5g for every 200ml of spring water, steeped at 95°C, for 3 minutes 

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