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Journal

Today it’s my pleasure to introduce a very special tea we’ve recently begun serving at the store. Jeannie purchased this Chinese black tea at the end of 2007–three years ago! Until now it’s sat sealed in a faraway corner of Miro’s storage. Jeannie recently remembered the tea and upon trying some was pleasantly surprised. Not only had the quality of the tea not degraded during its storage, the astringency had mellowed considerably and the tea was actually much more pleasant to drink than it had been three years ago!


Unfortunately because of the time that’s elapsed we know little about this tea other than the fact that it’s a high-grade Chinese black–the large bags it was stored in have only generic tea labels and the words “Special Grade” handwritten by our wholesaler. So, in absence of a more accurate name, we’re calling it “China Vintage Special.” I recently took the opportunity to give this tea a try and was quite pleasantly surprised. I don’t drink a lot of black tea but always appreciate a complex tea no matter what genre it belongs to. As you can see above, this tea’s leaves are quite long and though there are some golden buds present, it’s nowhere near as tippy as our Yunnan Gold Fancy.


When you see this tea in the cup, it’s easy to understand why the Chinese call black tea “red” tea; they’re going off of the liquor color not the dry leaf color! Indeed, this tea is a deep amber red with a nice surface sheen but great clarity, to be expected from the leaf profile. The word that kept ringing in my head while tasting this tea was “clean;” there certainly is no excessive astringency, nor is there any muddiness or harshness of flavor that can often plague cheap black tea. The flavor is a balanced mix of both high, sweet notes and a lower, maltier, medium-bodied base. Compared with our other Chinese blacks, this tea’s certainly unique. The range of flavor and mouth sensation is much wider than that of our bassy Keemun; compared with Yunnan Gold, it’s a bit drier, less pungently sweet, and purer. Additionally, there’s a definite vibrant energy to this tea’s mouthfeel and finish that really reminded me of the experience of drinking fresh Chinese green tea.

Because it’s been aged a couple of years, I recommend brewing this tea just a little bit stronger to reawaken its complexity. As shown above, the leaves don’t open fully even after a full steeping–a sign that this tea will actually be good for a few tries or maybe even steeped gong fu style. Stop by and try this special tea soon–we’ve only got a limited quantity and it’s already proven popular with our more discriminating black tea drinkers!

Elliot


“What is the best tea to infuse with vodka?” a friendly customer asks me one day. 

With a store of over 200 teas, meeting customers looking for specific teas for very specific purposes, becomes a game of “Stump the Chump” on a very regular basis.  Luckily, I love a good challenge.  To me, it adds variety to our work and it’s also one of the reasons why we provide such a vast variety of teas to begin with.  You can never get the type of customized service, advice and variety of product from a grocery store or even online, than from a brick and mortar tea shop. 




“No problem.” I tell him.  But honestly, I was a little in over my head because I’m not much of an alcohol drinker and my least favorite liquor was certainly, vodka.  While I did not want to be the cause of a failed experiment, I remained confident.  I knew my teas and I knew what I IMAGINED a good tea-infused vodka would taste like.


We quickly decided that black teas were the best tea to play around with an experiment like this.  Black teas have robust yet accessible flavors, and their amber coloration when steeped always make them ideal teas for infusions in beverages, cooking and baking.  I picked out three contenders.  New Vithana Ceylon, a gorgeous flowery ceylon with tightly rolled golden tips.  It’s best drunk alone to enjoy it’s mellow honey-like flavors.  Meleng Assame, a good everyday tea that represents all the qualities of a typical assam — hearty, robust and clean, brisk flavor.




And finally, Mokalbari Assam, my go to tea for anyone looking for a strong, malty yet smooth tea.  It has a lot of complex flavors that can grab a hold of a tea drinker’s attention and the flavor doesn’t fade away as quickly when combined with milk or other additives.  After sampling each of the teas, he settled on my favorite, Mokalbari Assam, believing the strong woodsy and almost sweet flavor of the tea would compliment and stand up well infused in a vodka.  It proved to be a wise choice.

A couple of months later, while sipping tea outside the store on a warm and pleasant day, the same customer came back, greeting me with a generous bottle of freshly infused tea vodka!  The experiment was a success!  He encourages me to “serve it with some tonic with a spritz of lemon and it will taste just like a real iced tea.”  Well, I’m sipping this vodka now (straight) as I write this post and I have to say that the results are surprisingly good.  The vodka used in this experiment was Svedka vodka, an affordable wheat grain vodka that’s strong with an unexpected smoothness.  The Mokalbari Assam did the job beautifully, as the distinct flavors of the black assam lingers in gradually, blending very easily with the vodka and providing hints of fruit at the end of a tasting.  As the mouth salivate and puckers in the finish, a clear taste of ripe green grapes can be detected.  Who would of thought!

To make tea infused vodka at home, it’s as simple as adding tea leaves to vodka and forgetting about it.  Choose a tea that’s strong enough to hold it’s own while complimenting the base flavor of the liquor.  Black teas are always a good choice but a Japanese green tea (like a Sencha or Gyokuro) may be interesting as well.  Use at least 1-2 ounces of tea per bottle and leave it in the liquor for at least 2 days, either in the refrigerator or in room temperature.  Then strain out the tea and enjoy!
Now that my mind has been opened to the possibilities of infusing alcohol with tea, I’m really looking forward to playing around with other tea and vodka combinations.  Readers, if you happen to have any experience in this (or decide to embark upon some experimenting on your own), please share with us interesting results you have discovered.  I’d love to read more about the possiblities.  Cheers!

The final major tea-producing region of India is Nilgiri. Unlike Assam and Darjeeling teas, which are both grown in the North-Eastern arm of India, Nilgiri tea is grown in the South-Eastern point in the hills of the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu province. The history of tea in the Nilgiris district is somewhat less robust in comparison with that of Assam and Darjeeling, but the region is indisputably important to India’s tea production and the teas produced there retain a range of recognizably “Nilgiri” flavor characteristics. At least half of all tea grown in Nilgiri is exported, and the vast majority of tea is grown by small farms and sold to separately-owned factories for processing. Nilgiri tea’s highland-grown leaves produce dark amber liquor and characteristics that are roughly describable as between those of Assam and Darjeeling.

We carry two Nilgiri blacks at Miro Tea; I chose our Corsley Estate Nilgiri–like both Darjeelings and Assams, each Nilgiri is usually named for the estate of its origin. As you can see in the picture, this tea has the largest, most complete leaves of the three teas featured so far. A larger leaf profile is generally referred to as “Orange Pekoe” (pronounced peck-oh), usually abbreviated OP, or BOP if the leaves are more “Broken.” A piece of leaf stem is also visible in the dry leaves–the occasional by-product of machine processing and sorting.

After I added hot water to the leaves, a powerful woody, honey-like aroma emerged from the cup. Tasting the liquor, I found a very comforting blend of honey sweetness (reminiscent very much of honey’s distinct flavor, as opposed to the experience of consuming honey) and a mellow, fleeting plum-like overtone. My overall instinct was to contrast this tea with the Satrupa Marangi Assam–this Nilgiri posesses a thinner liquor with a lighter mouth feel, none of the sharp notes of the Assam (much more rounded), and a noticeable drop in complexity. I also noticed that the tea’s aftertaste was really present on the breath, but wasn’t nearly as lasting as that of the Darjeeling I tasted, disappearing quickly until being renewed by another sip. This is a really pleasing tea to drink, but doesn’t really posses the kind of depth that necessitates close attention. These characteristics make Nilgiris great morning and everyday teas, because they’re always pleasant and won’t be spoiled if you have to concentrate on something else while you’re drinking them. Tney also make excellent iced teas–the round, malty sweetness of black tea, without the potential harshness that can be found in Assams makes for perfect iced tea.

Elliot

How time flies! Sometimes we get so busy taking care of store business that I have trouble finding time to keep up my promised blog entries before they’re overdue! Though they could have been more evenly-spaced throughout the month, today I’ll present Darjeeling and Nilgiri Indian Black Teas to finish (just under the wire) our celebration of Indian black teas.

Many people have at least heard the word “Darjeeling,” even if they haven’t tried Darjeeling’s world-famous teas. Darjeelings have been the subject of many mildly specious metaphors, such as “the champagne of teas,” or the “connoisseur’s black tea.” The fact is: tea is not wine, but Darjeeling black tea is an utterly unique tea genre that is certainly worthy of observant appreciation and the international renown it has generated. Like Assam teas, Darjeelings were first cultivated in the mid-1800’s by British expatriates. However, the similarities end there: Unlike Assams, Darjeelings are grown in the mountains of West Bengal province, and the tea plants used originated in China. Because of this combination, Darjeelings tend to be much lighter in body and complex in flavor than the lowland-grown Assam teas.

Darjeelings are also unique because of their leaf appearance–rather than a more or less uniformly black coloration, Darjeelings often contain a number of silver and green leaves, due to the “not-quite-full” oxidation that the leaves receive during processing, which surely contributes to their lightness and complexity when brewed. Darjeeling teas are produced by tea gardens known as “estates,” and the name of a particular Darjeeling is almost always the name of the estate. Following the estate name is usually an indicator of which “flush” the tea is–that is, when the tea was harvested. Generally, there are three primary harvests–First flush (produced in March at the end of the rains), Second Flush (produced during June), and Autumn Flush (produced–you guessed it–in autumn, after the second rain season). Flavor-wise, the flushes go from lightest, subtlest and most delicate to darker, fuller-bodied, and less delicate as time progresses, and earlier-harvested teas are usually less expensive. Really, though, it’s all a matter of taste–I tend to prefer Second Flush Darjeelings, even though they may not get the most attention.

The tea I chose for tasting is our new Makaibari Estate First Flush. The above picture demonstrates well the beautiful, varied appearance of the leaves. I steeped this one for 2.5 minutes using 190º water–I find a lower temperature of water produces a more subtle cup when it comes to Darjeeling, and too long of a steeping time will bring out a biting bitterness. The first sensation I experienced when drinking this tea was warming–I felt heat rush to my mouth and throat as soon as the tea touched my lips. After swallowing, I noticed a slight, pleasant bitterness in the back of my mouth, as well as an astringency that I often find in First Flush Darjeelings. The wet leaves (you can see in the picture that they’ve retained their varied coloration, unlike the Satrupa Marangi’s fully-oxidized golden buds) put off an inviting aroma of sweet leather and blackberries, and the tea’s liquor translates these aromas into a gentle, sweet-and-dry berry flavor and a much more subdued showing of that leathery characteristic. It’s also important to note that most true Darjeelings (Darjeelings, like most famous tea types are often faked!) share a similar flavor profile, dubbed “muscatel” by Darjeeling fans. The word is borrowed from wine tasting. Although I’m slightly unconvinced that there’s a strong connection between wine’s flavor profile and Darjeeling teas’, I’m absolutely sure that the so-called “muscatel” flavor is a primary draw for Darjeelings inasmuch as it’s unique and inviting in its complexity. The final characteristic that strikes me about this tea is its lingering aftertaste, which really didn’t occur with the other two Indian blacks I tried.

We carry two First Flush Darjeelings and one each of Second and Autumn Flushes, so if you’re in the neighborhood, please stop by and see for yourself what makes these teas so special!

Elliot

Assam teas (named for the north-eastern Indian state of their origin) are special for a number of reasons. Firstly, Assam is one of only two regions in the world with documented native tea plants (the other, more well-known area is Southern China). Interestingly, the tea plants found growing in Assam are actually an entirely different varietal of the camellia sinensis plant–camellia sinensis assamica, as opposed to the Chinese camellia sinensis sinensis. The Assamese tea plants generally produce large leaves with malty, earthier flavors than the more flowery Chinese variety. The other interesting thing about Assam teas is that they are best grown in the lowlands–unlike Nilgiris and Darjeelings, which are hill- and mountain-grown (not to mention most Chinese and Taiwanese teas, which are also ideally grown at higher elevation). Assam has a lot of floodplain terrain with rich soil that the Assamese tea plants seem to like the best.

In general, Assam teas are strong, robust, malty, and full-bodied. You may not know it, but there’s a good chance you’re already familiar with Assam tea–it’s a staple ingredient in most English Breakfast tea blends. Because of their potent characteristics, Assam teas stand up well to milk and also often benefit from a little sugar.


The Assam I picked to taste is the Satrupa Marangi Estate Assam. We acquired this one fairly recently. One of our most discerning Assam fans recently told me that this tea “perfectly sums up all of the characteristics” he looks for in an Assam. Not bad! As you can sea in the picture above, the tea is mostly composed of dark brown leaves (usually about half a centimeter in length–at most). There are also a number of lighter leaves in the mix–these are leaf buds, and are usually referred to as “tips,” when it comes to Indian black teas. Usually, the tippier a tea is, the sweeter it will taste, since the leaf buds are more tender, delicate, and younger.

I brewed 2.5 grams of Satrupa Marangi Assam in a 120 ml competition brewing set for 4 minutes with boiling water. A quick sniff of the wet leaves revealed a richly woody aroma with plenty of strength. As you can see in the photo on the right, the tips, which were obvious in the dry leaf photo have mostly disappeared and the wet leaves are a homogeneous dark brown, thanks to the complete oxidation they underwent during processing. The same woody aroma is present in the liquor, but it’s less intense and is also accompanied with notes of caramel. It’s also worth noting (especially in comparison with the two other teas I’ll be writing about) that the liquor is a very dark amber.

Tasting this tea, the first sensations I felt were in the form of tingling in the top of my mouth and back of my throat. Yes, Assams are unquestionably powerful! After swallowing, the tingling eased off and my mouth filled with a malty, mildly astringent and simultaneously sweet-and-bitter aftertaste. Exhaling a little, I could taste some hints of another flavor, somewhat akin to the woodiness in the aroma–something leathery, or like fresh tobacco. This tea definitely packs a good deal of complexity with its rather large punch. The strength and bitterness may be a little overpowering for some (especially people used to hunting the complexities out of milder and subtler teas), but they do have a great upside–if you add milk or cream and sugar, the tea’s character and complexity remain largely intact and are complemented rather than covered up. If you’re a fan of milk and sugar in your tea, I can wholeheartedly recommend our Satrupa Marangi Assam as a great candidate for a creamy and delicious cup.

Next up we’ll be moving on to the mountains not far from Assam and to some of black tea’s most exquisite pleasures, Darjeeling blacks!

Elliot


Since Chinese Green Tea month ran long, we’re now celebrating Indian Black Teas through September. This means the usual:

  • 15% off all Indian Black Teas–by the cup and pot, as well as bulk!
  • Many teas will be on clearance. Since we reduced our menu, we have stock of a number of discontinued teas that is on sale for 50% off–two ounces for the price of one! This includes a number of high-quality Assams and Darjeelings.
  • I’ll be sharing a few of our finest Indian black teas via tasting notes on this blog.
  • Informational handouts will be available in Miro Tea.
  • Free loose samples will be available in-store for customers to try at home!

A bit of background for those unfamiliar with the specifics of tea in India: Official reports of native assamica tea plants date back to at least the 1500’s, but widespread cultivation and production of tea only began in the 1830’s when the British lost their monopoly on tea trade with China and opportunistic businessmen began the first tea plantations designed to accommodate burgeoning demand for tea in Britain. Tea production expanded over the next two centuries to the point that India at one time surpassed China as the world’s largest tea producer. Today, the three most famous and prolific tea-producing regions in India are Assam, Darjeeling (both of which are located in the northeastern, spindly part of India seen in the map) and Nilgiri, which is located in the mountains of the southeastern portion of India’s tip. Many consider Sri Lankan teas (also archaically known as “Ceylon” teas) as Indian, but for Indian black tea month we’ll stick to India as commonly understood by international treaties! More will be said about each region (hopefully including some tasting notes, time permitting).

Elliot