Monday, November 16, 2015

Earl Grey from Hatvala (Vietnamese tea)

A nice version of an Earl Grey tea (from Hatvala, although it wasn't on their website yet last I checked).  I end up reserving this tea type for when I'm stuck at a work function at a hotel but I suppose it deserves better.  Maybe it just took awhile for me to open scope of drinking tea to appreciate more of a variety of types, even though I drank more Earl Grey years ago than I do now.  The things I appreciate most about drinking tea haven't related to it, like trying new types, and experiencing the range of subtle characteristics a conventional single type and source tea can have.  But there is something to enjoying an "everyday" tea.

Earl Grey!  looks pretty good as those go

Earl Grey tends to just taste like orange oil flavored black tea, because that's what it is.  Wikipedia is the perfect completely generic source to fill in some details:

Earl Grey tea is a tea blend with a distinctive citrus flavour and aroma derived from the addition of oil extracted from the rind of the bergamot orange, a fragrant citrus fruit.[1] ...

...Bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia) is a small citrus tree which blossoms during the winter and is grown commercially in Calabria,Italy....

According to the Grey family, the tea was specially blended by a Chinese mandarin for Lord Grey, to suit the water at Howick Hall, the family seat in Northumberland, using bergamot in particular to offset the preponderance of lime in the local water.

So there's all that.  Maybe bergamot is also the perfect additive to offset whatever is in Bangkok tap water, but for other health reasons probably as well to not drink that without substantial filtering.  To me this tea is all about how well the bergamot taste balances, more so than the other normal factors, like the grade of tea, and taste contribution from the oil, although those surely relate.  In this example those flavors balance well.

A tea friend once commented that blending teas is usually about covering up flaws in one of the teas. A bit negative a take, right?  Still, there could be something to that, and roughly the same idea in a positive form still works, that blending is about making the most of various qualities or strengths of different teas, and possibly herbs, by combining them.  This is a flavored tea anyway; not exactly the same thing.

It probably works out that most tea ever produced he just wouldn't drink, and to be fair the same is probably true to some degree of most tea enthusiasts; they seem to tend to draw limits.  But not all; some are very open and flexible, so they even might go back and give the standard Lipton tea bag a second look to establish a base-line.  I wrote about an even more basic tea bag here once, messing around, but I'm not going to link to that; it was what you'd expect.  I guess these ideas naturally lead towards some definition of what is really "better" tea, although that is completely subjective.

One direction these sorts of concerns could go might relate to a definition of specialty tea, but that's really a different thing.  I'm talking about subjective preference, not trying to make tea type variations and categories less subjective.  I've ran across a different sort of personal account of this in a blog recently, so I'll pass on a little of that.  It's from "the Devotea" tea blog, by Robert Godden.  This post also related to the tragedy in Paris over the weekend, just horrible that, but this excerpt is about preference:

I’m not fussy at all.  I do require, of course , that the tea not be made from a teab*g. That’s not fussy...

If it’s a black tea, it has to have some tannins. That’s not me being fussy, that’s a fact. But not too many tannins. It can be chewy and leathery if over tannined, and I don’t want that... 

I also like a lingering after-taste. I hate it when you drink tea and it vanishes from your mouth as soon as it’s gone down, It’s not too fussy to expect a memory of the taste to linger on your tongue for five to fifteen minutes, is it? No! ....

Subjective, and funny.  It keeps going, and I've trimmed some from this part too; the rest is perhaps worth a read.  The point is that what someone prefers varies, and whether that includes different broad categories or Earl Grey or not, is just up to them (or if Japanese green teas make the cut, etc.).  He as easily might have said he'd never drink blends, if his natural preferences had led there instead, but he didn't, and in fact he creates and sells those.

It's hard to say any tea is really objectively "good," to take subjective preference out of it, although I sometimes get the impression that one really is.  I suppose it's easier to describe a tea as matching a type well, or having certain qualities.  I don't drink enough Earl Grey to be a great reference for the matching part but I can describe this tea.

Review part:

as black as my wife's soul

The flavors are clean, astringency limited, with plenty to give the tea some body, just nowhere near enough for me to start considering adding sugar or milk.  The bergamot element is pronounced but it still also tastes like a black tea.  The specific nature of that tea didn't show through so clearly, but then that's how Earl Grey goes.  I could tell a bit about what the tea itself started out as but couldn't really describe it without the orange oil, which really is part of the point though, they should blend.

I brewed it western style (would be interesting to see orange flavor transition across gongfu infusions), and the flavoring taste was stronger and more aromatic first infusion than second, but it still worked to do more than one, and the "orange" definitely didn't drop out.  The tea contribution stayed consistent, full flavored, balanced, with good structure and some nice earthy elements, and good complexity, maybe smoother than I would have expected.

Vendor input:

I asked the Hatvala owner about the tea since there isn't a web page mention yet, and that follows:

The black tea is produced from wild tea trees (camellia sinensis assamica) from the northern provinces of Yen Bai and Ha Giang.  In fact the current tea is mainly from Van Chan and from the same producer as the Wild Boar although we will not market as a single origin and will perhaps use other black teas in future but they will always be from wild tea trees.

The bergamot oil we use is imported from Singapore but its origin is Reggio Calabria in the very southern tp of  Italy.  It is an extract from 100% natural organic Bergamot (Citrus bergamia Risso).

So there is that.  It did seem like a pretty good version of black tea to start, I'm just not so good at reviewing a tea as an ingredient.  It's interesting to consider that if I drank more decent Earl Grey I might be able to do that to some extent, or say something about the flavor profile of the oil.

There are advantages to drinking tea that's not some amazing example of a rare tea type; it takes the pressure off.  For better teas or some tea types I won't brew them Western style, but I don't usually have time to sit down for a dozen tiny cups of tea over a half an hour, so I can't typically drink tea like that for breakfast or on a work break.  Black teas in general work well for Western-style brewing, and from there experimentation helps point out how varying brewing affects different tea types, or specific teas.

I recently bought a lot of two other Hatvala Vietnamese teas for this purpose, a black tea (Wild Boar) and darker roasted rolled-style oolong (Red Buffalo).  That oolong would respond differently to brewing different approaches, it just works out well across a range of them.  This tea was a free sample sent with those; my thanks to Hatvala for that.


  1. Thanks for quoting me...but... It's 'perhaps' worth reading my blog?

  2. something like a soft sell; sounds nicer to leave it more open :)