Monday, December 30, 2013

Alishan "Gaba" Oolong (from Taiwan)

I recently tried an unusual type of tea, processed differently to change the chemical nature of the tea and increase "GABA" content, an active brain chemical that may support relaxation when consumed.  Different variations of this general type of tea, several types of oolongs and a black tea, were all similar in taste.

GABA and related tea processing, what is it

It was discovered some time ago that by restricting air contact with tea during processing it is possible to increase the content of a chemical compound that helps regulate brain function, GABA (gamma-aminobutryic acid).  On-line research turned up an old blog post by the Tea Nerd that goes into this compound background a bit more than I intend to, and Wikipedia goes into brain chemistry even further.

GABA synapse receptor model (source:  Wikipedia)

More than the question of what the GABA brain regulator does, it's relevant if this compound can be consumed, enter the bloodstream, and then cross the blood-brain barrier, which is questionable.  Related sources indicate some people notice a relaxing effect, and others can sleep even just after drinking this tea, which they aren't able to do drinking other teas.  The placebo effect could account for most if not all of that, and a lot off the material available on GABA-processed teas is marketing related.

Another immediate concern might be the effect of the processing, how it works, and how it changes the tea.  In discussing this with an on-line tea acquaintance Michael Coffey commented: 

"my understanding is that during the oxidation process, oxygen is the preferred compound to bind with in various chemical interactions, but if oxygen is replaced with nitrogen, then the reaction has no "choice" but to use nitrogen instead of oxygen. So it's not the absence of air, but essentially forcing certain chemical reactions that wouldn't end up happening if oxygen were present."

So essentially the tea is processed similarly to the normal methods, but in contact with nitrogen instead of air.  Since nitrogen is the primary component in air the end effect is a greater change than one might initially expect.  The process makes you question "oxidation level" as one of the main standard descriptions of this tea, a subject I'll revisit.  More could be said about these concepts but for now I'll skip ahead to how the actually tea tastes. 

Alishan Gaba Oolong tasting:

I obtained the tea from the May Zest Tea Company in Taiwan, a local supplier of a number of specialty teas from there.  This link goes to the product description, which focuses on both the effect and the unconventional taste of the tea.  Note this supplier usually deals in higher tea quantities than retail sales amounts, but they were very kind about supplying tasting sample quantities instead.

Alishan GABA oolong (source:  May Zest)

The May Zest company is unusually direct in their product description:  Why the tea is a little bit sour and has strange taste? Is the tea natural?  The taste is actually not so easy to summarize, not exactly sour but that does work as a partial description.  The flavor was not like other teas I've tried. 

The Tea Nerd blog post mentioned earlier described that other reviewed tea as very sweet, fruity, a bit one-dimensional, with an unusual mouth-feel, so quite different.  These teas struck me as earthy, with an unusual taste element similar to malt, yeast, or even cork.  It brewed to a brownish red color of tea, not a pale yellow or gold. 

Two things stood out aside from the unconventional taste:  the tea wasn't complex in flavors, since those components dominated the entire flavor profile, and the mouth-feel or body of the tea was unusual.  Whereas other oolongs from Taiwan, or even from Thailand based on the same cultivars exhibit a full and smooth body--all GABA-increased processed teas were produced from Jin Xuan teas--the effect of this tea was hard to describe at first, somehow a little dry.  It wasn't a negative effect, coming across as a problem with the tea, but did seem like a gap compared to the expected rich "feel" of related teas.

The main flavor of the tea was not bad, interesting, perhaps hard to appreciate for being so unconventional.  "Malt" elements are a current favorite of mine but I've not experienced them paired with this type of background, and often teas that exemplify such flavors are unusually complex, not so simple in flavor profile.  The taste of the tea was consistent throughout both the process of tasting it (initial flavor, finish, all taste elements just that one limited set--see last blog about related taste methods), and consistent across infusions, maybe with the earthy "cork" aspect fading a little as the malt picked up later. 

One other side-note raises a sensitive subject:  I tried a little of the tea with sugar in it.  Most typically that would make sense for cutting the effect of astringency in tea, and there was essentially none in these teas, or maybe just for a taster hooked on sweetness, which I'm not.  A little more sweetness did improve the tea by allowing those unusual flavors to make slightly more sense, in a way that an example might help illustrate.

Once on a family restaurant outing to a Mongolian grill place my niece and I both erred in adding too much spicing to the ingredients.  During cooking you add seasoning over time, tasting in the middle, but it's harder to guess it out into a bowl at the outset.  We tried adding salt to the dish later, which couldn't possibly affect the spice or "heat" level, but the taste made more sense when balanced with more of another flavor element.  In a similar way a little more sweetness seemed to make the unusual taste of tea balance better, although I still drank most of it unsweetened out of habit.

tea effect; does it "work"?

I'm really not the right person to gauge this.  I drink tea for taste, and can notice it contains caffeine that isn't as jarring as from drinking coffee, but beyond that I really don't pick up the different "qi" effects some people describe.  Of course I accept that there are other effective compounds in tea, so real aspects are being described; I just can't judge them in myself.  I'm not sleeping well these days in general--my daughter is 7 weeks old--so I'm probably even less tuned in to being relaxed or sleepy just now, always a bit groggy.

I noticed no difference from the normal effects of tea, but then I accept that some of the other conventional calming effects related to various active compounds are valid and I'm just not sensitive enough to notice them.  It is possible the compound in these teas could enhance relaxation, or it really may not.

various types of GABA processed tea

The supplier, the May Zest tea company, supplied several grade levels of this type of oolong, and even a black tea version.  All shared a similar flavor element, and the black tea wasn't so noticeably different.  This returns to the issue of oxidation; the main process difference is limiting contact with oxygen, and therefore some degree of oxidation, replacing that with a different nitrogen based chemical reaction.  According to the supplier contact with oxygen occurs during parts of the process but this difference seems to account for the very unique taste of the tea.

The different grades of the tea were noticeably different but only moderately so.  The one described flavor element was consistent and dominated the teas, so variations in body and complexity were minor.  This may be one case where a drinking lower grade of tea makes sense since anyone drinking the tea would be likely be doing so for the effect, or perhaps for a preference for the taste element common to the various grades.


As I drink tea primarily for taste even though I like teas with some similarity the limitations of the tea offset that (slight "sourness," lack of complexity, unusual tea body).  It would seem most would try the tea for the effect, which may or may not actually occur due to this additional compound.  As the Tea Nerd blog post pointed out, "L-theanine causes the brain to produce more GABA itself."  So the most active calming effects of these teas could be tied to a compound that is much more familiar and universal.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Tea flavor wheels, temperate climate bias

I've ran across a few versions of tea flavor wheels since getting into tea.  These are great for identifying a number of different related flavors, to help with guiding palate development for separating out the flavors in different teas.

Personally I've faced a few hurdles with this.  With practice ordinary flavors aren't so difficult to identify, although at first they sort of are (grass, spices, floral components, earth elements, etc.).  A few seemed unfamiliar at first, then later quite obvious, especially butter, malt, and cocoa.  Aside from that issue I'm not familiar with a lot of types of smells that relate to flavors that are not tied to food tastes, like different flowers.

Tea flavor wheel examples

Two sample flavor wheels follow, both of which are not so different, and seem pretty good:

Twinnings tea flavor wheel


Temple Mountain flavor wheel

Using the wheel, how to taste tea

Twinnings has suggestions on their site about tasting tea, more methodology than I use related to this.  They mention trying to identify what you taste as the general flavor impression that strikes you first, then the main impression, and the most detailed flavors that linger after, as head, body, and tail.  Tea tasting classes would identify tasting methodologies like this better, with guidance on specific examples.  Of course the idea of a "finish" is not unique to tea, and can be an interesting effect.

For me the teas seem to separate out into flavor elements on different levels.  I think of them in a spatial way, as a base of main flavors, with some undertones that underlie that, and "higher" tones of more specific and somewhat isolated flavor elements.  One could instead think of these as front, middle, and back, closer to how Twinnings is describing tasting, but their method is chronological, not really related to how individual flavors seem to strike the palate differently as an arrangement of different component levels.  Some teas emphasize a certain "level," for example some oolongs might have lots of rich flavors and a nice feel but not so many "forward" or "higher" flavor components.

All of this could make tea tasting more complicated than it really needs to be.  Some teas seem to present quite simple flavor profiles anyway, just a few basic flavors.  Or complex teas could include many flavor elements that are so mixed it could be hard to separate them out without a lot of practice (like a blended tea might).  More typically good single-source teas seem to show a number of different flavor elements that one can identify separately with practice, as the categories in these wheels indicate.  For me if I like the flavor elements that works better than looking for a certain balance in different types of tastes and body elements, but then what I like changes over time.

Temperate climate bias in tea wheels

As I've been tasting teas it occured to me that these wheels are incomplete.  In the tropics there are a number of different vegetables, fruits, and herbs, and many of the flavors on these wheels would be known as imported foods that not all would have much exposure to.  There are "tropical" fruit sections on these, the main ones familiar in the West, but even for the few mentioned there are lots of types of these fruits covering a range of different tastes.  In Thailand and elsewhere there are many individual types of mangos, pineapples, or even bananas, all of which share some taste components, but all of which can vary quite a bit, as apples do.  Even more fruits you just never hear of in the West:  mangosteen, rambutan, longan, longon, jackfruit, durian, and so on.  Most of them are delicious and easy to adapt to but unfamiliar textures can be an issue.

For vegetables, herbs, and flowers the difference is more pronounced; Thais eat dozens of things that initially were unfamiliar to me.  Some of it translates or can go by Western names (like banana flower, lotus root, or morning glory), or some only seem to have Thai names, so often I'm eating things I recognize on sight only.

Back to tea tasting:  recently I was trying a bai mu dan (or white peony) with a friend, which seemed to taste like apricot to me, an element described in the write-up as melon.  She said it tasted more like dried persimmon, which was exactly it.  I've had fresh and dried persimmon but I never would have made that connection.  It's hard to describe what the fruit tastes like, maybe like apricot.  

That same friend had mentioned some teas taste like orchid, or lotus flower before, but not being familiar with these smells I couldn't really know.  Later I checked by smelling lotus flowers at the house when they bloomed.

Next steps:  advanced palate training

Tasting flavors as they come up in teas is a good way to "train" the average tea drinker, but there might be other ways to push that further.  Nigel Melican recently posted about use of aroma samples in wine tasting (sample site link), which could also be applied to tea.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Chinese and Indian silver needle teas

Doke (Lochan) silver needle and T2 Tea silver needle 

I should start by saying I'll write about tasting two white teas at the same time, nothing more general.  I don't even mean to imply they are representative.  These two suppliers seem universally familiar to me, but in case they are not Lochan is known for producing from the Indian Doke region, and for selling different teas, and T2 Tea is a major Australian tea chain (or maybe even the major chain there).

Really the advantage of tasting both together was more about helping me pick up flavor and body elements than any other comparison insights.  This relates to a tip I recently read in the Peony tea blog as one of several ways to develop a palate.  I'm still working on that, so I regularly taste teas multiple times and keep picking up on flavor elements I hadn't noticed before. 

Sometimes flavors I had missed even seem like really predominant components, and I wonder how they got by.  Brewing variations can be one cause but I think it's just taking me time to sort through layers of complex flavor profiles and separate them out.  Also new types of teas can include unfamiliar flavors (unfamiliar in tea, at least, or maybe beyond that), so tasting a few times can help.

T2's silver needle (see pics on-line to see the "down" better)

what the vendors say

I agree with the vendor's input in general but won't be saying exactly the same thing, so I thought I'd let them weigh in first.

Lochan describes their own tea as having Key Flavours: Delicate hints of peach blossom, dried apricots and straw with a lingering sweet aftertaste.  I would agree, but maybe with a little more earthiness than that too, but more as undertone than as a dominant flavor element.

T2  said (edited):  A hint of peach colours ... sweet and subtle aroma of sugarcane and the delicate earthiness of mushrooms ... dainty florals and a hint of cocoa that lingers. 

The earthiness came across differently to me, but still right on.  One amazing aspect of the tea was the body or feel, which they described as "a wonderfully tactile, creamy and smooth sensation."  Really, it's like that.

individual tea tasting

The color difference was notable right away, with the T2 tea brewing to yellow gold and the Doke tea showing a slight rose color.

From my tasting notes, the T2 silver needle showed "hints of mineral earthiness, peach fruit component, subtle floral layer, light natural sweetness, interesting feel."  Typically I'm appreciating teas for flavor more than body but there was something unusually pleasant about this tea, which I'm sure I could do more justice to describing after a few more years of tasting. 

The sugarcane seemed like honey to me, and the mushroom more like a mineral component, towards flint, but then these flavors were mixing a bit.  "Flint" could sound like a bad thing, since you usually don't eat stones, but in a strange way that subtle and unusual earthiness really tied the other flavors together, or so it seemed to me.  In later infusions this changed nature a bit as the earthiness dropped out and fruit flavors subsided but the cocoa picked up, maybe even leaning a little towards cinamon.

The Doke silver needle was still subtle and sweet as this type of tea would be but stronger flavored than the other.  In a very faint way the conventional tastes of Indian teas joined in with the soft, layered effect, of course without any tannin astringency.  As can happen in my tasting notes I described not being able to separate out what seemed to be a number of different floral, fruit, and earthier components.

comparison of the teas

The Doke tea flavors came across as more pronounced, and interesting in complexity, so in a sense compared well to the T2 tea.  The taste profile hinted at Indian tea, with just a hint of grape / raisin, in a very different presentation than I've ever tried, subtle and sweet.  When drinking this tea brewed in a gaiwan (gongfu style, with shorter steep times) the flavor of many infusions remained consistent, but then the T2 version held up well to a lot of infusions as well, perhaps just changing slightly more.

The T2 tea flavors were so subtle they almost seemed wispy in comparison, but they joined well together, and were a really positive set of flavors to begin with.  I tried the tea using different brewing methods, and their recommended longer steep time did increase the flavor levels to offset the naturally lightness.  They suggested 7 to 10 minutes, and maybe I didn't go quite that long.  In a way it was nice to have it gongfu style instead, wispier as it was, to just really go with the subtlety.  Made both ways it was a very refined, pleasant tea, just different in character.

The difference in the body of the teas stood out most in the comparison, but I'm really at a loss to explain that aspect in the T2 tea.  I guess a "creamy and smooth sensation" covers it but somehow the experience goes beyond those concepts.

Normally tea pricing doesn't require mention, but in this case it seems relevant.  I bought the T2 tea at a normal retail price (see earlier website link), which would seem a bit much for most teas but for a good version of this type still reasonable.  I noticed on the Lochan site that their silver needle tea is very moderately priced given the tea type and the character of the tea.  This must relate to buying the tea more directly from the producer (they grow it), and possibly to local demand issues, although tea pricing can vary with the type of sales outlet.

what I do when not drinking tea

It's always nice to be able to try a tea before you buy it since value ties directly to quality but in my opinion for these two teas that's not a concern.  It seems possible the T2 Chinese version might come across as more conventional given the source region, and the body of that tea is likely something white tea drinkers would appreciate, but both were nice, quite different examples of silver needle tea.


Friday, November 22, 2013

tea and a newborn, tea and Australia

A recurring theme in this blog seems to be things that don't necessarily go together.  I just had a baby, and just visited Australia for work, so I'll cover how all that did or didn't relate to tea.

tea and a newborn

The day after my daughter was born I came close to not drinking tea.  You would think tea might be a great way to freshen up a bit since newborn babies keep strange hours, waking every 2 to 3 hours to eat, but it didn't work out that way for me.  I was too busy, and always hoping to catch a nap between all the feeding and oohing and aahing, but in the end I just didn't sleep much.

At one point I actually did drink a really sweet lemon iced tea from an Au Bon Pan (coffee-shop in the hospital), but that sort of doesn't count as tea since it might as well have been lemonade.  I'm not good about carrying tea-ware everywhere I go so I ended up brewing some ti kuan yin in paper cups, and never did actually miss a day of drinking tea.

my little angel
Before she was born I was picturing how hectic everything would be later and how I'd be trying to brew tea with one hand while holding a baby.  I'm not sure what I was thinking, especially since she is my second child.  Newborns take a lot of work but they sleep more than half the time, and of course my wife covers a lot of the work anyway.  It never was easy before to set aside an hour just for brewing and drinking cup after cup of tea, and that's tightened up a bit, but it's not so bad.  I drink even more tea at work now because I'm a zombie from not sleeping regularly.

tea and Australia

I visited Sydney for a convention the first week my baby was born--just awful timing, but it was important to go--and of course my experience of the tea scene was very limited.  I stopped by a T2 (a standard commercial slightly overpriced tea shop there), so I'll start with that.

It was nice seeing all the teas presented in a visually interesting way, lots of dark wood shelves filled with tea and tea-ware, with samples set out so you could also see the teas.  Of course I was going to buy some, just a matter of which and how much.  The staff was helpful and relatively knowledgeable, only really having no clue what pu'er was all about, but then that's as good a place as any to fall short.  People that don't know anything about pu'er don't absolutely need to be drinking it anyway, as well to stick to oolong until you really must venture out, and that probably isn't the place to buy it anyway.  They sold only one pu'er that wasn't flavored, and it was a loose version (non-pressed), both not such good signs.

I stocked up on white tea, something I'd been meaning to try more of, and one relatively oxidized oolong that matched some flavors I was craving.  The salesperson did a great job of describing the different teas, especially given that he didn't seem to be as obsessed with tea as might seem normal to me.  Later the tea he recommended was nice and malty with fruit elements and a bit of vague spice under that, like Christmas might taste if it was a tea, just the thing.  That's not exactly how it sounds on the T2 website description but close enough (T2 grand china oolong).

Convention travel is never set up with lots of free time, but better it wrapped up so quickly in this case since I had somewhere else to be.   I squeezed in some shopping since some things are hard to find or more expensive in South East Asia, even basics, like decent chocolate. I stayed relatively near the Sydney Chinatown and did some shopping so close by I walked past the edge of it, without straying even steps to look for tea. In this one case the parental instincts helped steel my resolve; I needed all sorts of first-world baby stuff my wife had kindly written out a shopping list to buy, and basic essentials like Leggos for my 5 year old.   It was like my own personal Christmas rush; odd going through that before Thanksgiving, in nearly empty stores.

At the convention itself I had my first experience with decent tea in tea bags.  When you think of it putting tea in a bag wouldn't need to make it taste that much worse, just not so likely the best tea would ever end up there.  A shop here in Bangkok was selling Dong Ding tea that looked ok in tea bags, and I might have bought that except the pricing wasn't so favorable and they botched brewing it for a sample--should've used a timer, I guess--so I didn't know what it really tasted like.  It looked too green anyway; not the page I'm on just now. 

The tea-bag tea in the 5-star conference hotel included darjeeling and earl grey that weren't too bad, which really came in handy since I was jet-lagged after days prior without sleep.  I drank tea after tea between the sessions, and even mixed in some cups of coffee, which just about never comes up.

Friday, November 8, 2013

mystery tea investigation

Back in August I was lucky to travel a lot, which is a lot easier here because so many countries are relatively local.  Traveling to the North of Thailand or over to Laos or Cambodia (or Malaysia, Vietnam, etc.) is like someone visiting the next state back in America, and probably costs less.  An overnight sleeping berth train ticket to Chiang Mai (the North of Thailand) or to the Laos border costs just over $US 20 (second class; more like 40 for first class in a two-person cabin).
I bought teas I didn’t completely identify in both Chiang Mai and Beijing.  China is a bit further out there, of course, with more visa paperwork, which costs around $100 to process. 
In Chiang Mai the tea was labeled as oolong, grade #1, but based on my wife’s translation of the package (entirely in Thai) there was no cultivar designation.  It seems possible there was more information she just wasn’t catching since there was Thai language all over the vacuum sealed bag.  One could assume the tea was grown in the Chiang Rai area since most grown in Thailand is, although it might not have been.

tea before brewing
The tea from China was more of a mystery, sold in a small shop in an old-style market from bulk, labeled as high mountain organic green tea.  I bought some oolong and longjing tea at the same shop (possibly knock-off longjing, which is a different story).  Both turned out to be quite decent, reasonable mid-grade, much as I could tell such a thing.  The “high mountain green” tea had a very unusual look, quite like pine needles, with more to follow on the taste. 

A short aside on what an old-style market is, since that can mean a lot of things.  Local food markets in Thailand are really interesting, large rooms full of tables with people selling goods, sometimes in buildings that look like an old warehouse.  In the rougher versions bare light bulbs hang to show goods packed on crowded tables, with troughs in the floor as drainage since the refrigeration for foods that require it is just ice.  The smells can be incredible, a mix of interesting and some unpleasant smells that takes some getting used to.  It's like the smell equivalent of being in a loud room where lots of people are talking.
But this market wasn't like that.  Traditional goods markets are a bit more orderly, with large buildings separated into stalls, often with different types of things on multiple floors.  I also bought tea in a Russian market like that Beijing (mid-grade oolong; decent, but not quite so mysterious).  This tea shop was just a counter and shelves in the middle of lots of other things, with lots of types of teas in different containers.  The market in Chiang Mai wasn't so different, a traditional market selling all sorts of dry goods, but with teas sold pre-packaged.

Thailand oolong

I experimented with different brewing techniques with this tea, probably just not getting it right at first, and the tea seemed mediocre or good depending on how I made it.  Or maybe it was varying with my mood, or what I had with it, or the noise level in the room (little boys really do love noise). 
After already trying it a few times I brewed it Western style in a large glass pot and was amazed at how buttery the tea tasted, and trying it again later brewed in a gaiwan the results were the same.  To make a long story short right away it seemed it must be Jin Xuan, which is a very common Thai cultivar best known for this “milk oolong” effect.  The teas can have a creamy feel or taste to them that can even resemble butter, or some taste nutty instead.  I've read of the possiblity of fake versions of milk oolong, flavored to emphasize certain tastes, but for reasons I'll skip it seemed "real."
This cultivar is also known as #12 from the registration numbered list of hybrids, widely imported from Taiwan back when Thailand was trying to get farmers to switch from opium to other crops.   More on all that here, and more description of Jin Xuan. 
I just shared this tea with my favorite local pu’er shop owner this week, Paula from JRT Gallery and Tea shop.  There really should be a website to link to but the Google maps location will have to do for now.
Paula is an amazing source of tea information, although I’ve always wonder how much of it isn’t grounded in solid facts when it starts to get unusual (she’s Chinese, and from China, not Thai).  For example, she talks about the effect different teas have on mood and feelings, the chi / qi idea, or how the tea in the top of the cup can taste different than the tea in the bottom of it, when the cups are holding half an ounce of tea. 
She said the oolong probably wasn’t made using a lot of fertilizer or pesticides because you could check the leaf by rolling it between your fingers and see if it makes a ball or starts to shred.  The ball is the good result, so apparently chemical use can degrade the structure of the leaf to some extent (my interpretation, of course).  
Paula said the tea is good--so I was right for liking it, much as external validation is valid--seeming to like the buttery taste, floral undertones, clean flavors, long finish, and nice feel.  But she said since this tea is from a high production plant type it is seen as an everyday tea in China, potentially a good tea but not an expensive one.  She also said it’s a tea women would tend to like more.  Gender-based tea preferences; odd.  I’ll check back later on which is a really manly tea.

Chinese high mountain organic green

leaves after brewing
This tea wasn’t so easy to identify.  At first it was so unusual I couldn’t be sure if I liked it or not but it soon had me appreciating vegetal flavors more than I had before.  

It starts out with a touch of astringency but with a nice pine / rosemary flavor.  By the second infusion the astringency really drops out and other vegetal flavors join the rosemary, a grassiness, even a hint of green beans.  As infusions go on the rosemary fades and the green beans get stronger.  More than just the taste there is a feel and impression to the tea that is nice.  The flavors are bright with a hint of sweetness, with a little dryness to the feel of it.  The brewed leaves are still very small. 
So what type of tea is it?  I don’t know.  It seems like with more tea experience (rather than the relatively little that I have) I’d probably have more information to go on.
I asked someone with a lot of tea background on-line and he said: 
“might be a Chinese-grown sencha (either Chinese copy of a Japanese tea, or a Japanese-commissioned tea from China) or one of the various "bird's tongue" style teas.  I'd lump Lu'an Gua Pian (Lu'an Melon Seed) into that group as well .”  
Pretty good for an off-the-top-of-the-head guess based on limited information, right?  I researched those teas and they didn’t sound or look exactly right.  I Googled “green needle tea” since that’s what it looked like and nothing fit well.  It’s not like this is the only tea ever made of its kind, I’m just not sorting out what it is.  It’s interesting to consider if it might be a copy of some other type of tea, but under the circumstances it would seem not to matter. 
After the horror stories about China and fake foods there (industrial chemicals used in place of food ingredients, steamed buns made from cardboard, fake eggs that come in a shell, with a fake yolk) at first I was wondering if it might be something other than tea. 


I’ve bought more teas that were not so good tea-shopping at random in South East Asia—more on all that in other posts—but sometimes it works out.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

comparing tea and wine

Before I was a tea drinker I went through an extended wine drinking phase, long since over now.  Around then I was also into tisanes / herb teas, but that's a different subject.  There are some interesting comparisons between tea and wine. 
Tasting style:

When tasting wine you smell, sip, and slurp the wine, and the same process works with tea.  The slurping aerates both allowing access by sensors associated with smell.  One difference is the use of large glasses for wine for swirling.  There are a variety or cup types used for tea-drinking but the scent seems to come off the warmer tea much better anyway, even a very small cup, and even an empty tea cup can still be filled with aroma after drinking. 
In some types of wine tasting there is an emphasis on blind tasting and identification of type, maker, vineyard location, and year as a measure of advanced palate training.  I was never remotely near that level, and it seemed a bit abstract related to enjoying wine.  For both wine and tea there is a learning and experience curve that just keeps going; generally a good thing.

with wine in the Utah desert; Australian shiraz recommended

Wine and tea rating:

My wine guru once told me that you should take the expert opinions for what they are worth and then go with what works for you, for any subject.  That seemed very open since he is a top-tier wine maker in Napa Valley, surely immersed in conventional opinions and ranking considerations.

The wine industry has developed an easy to follow number system of ranking wines on a scale of 100.  Preference is still as much a consideration when selecting a wine as score since the individual character, strengths, and weaknesses all roll together to a number. 
I’m not familiar with anything nearly as standard in tea evaluation, but then I’m really not familiar with the different types of scoring that are in use.  Even if this could be standardized it wouldn’t mean as much without a central influence to consolidate consensus like the Wine Spectator magazine, and even then rating limitations could offset any benefits.  The paradigm of allowing tasting of teas in a tea shop before buying them is also different, not nearly as practical for wines, so in that context ratings become less important.

Entry to wine / tea:

It seems to me there is a natural entry path to wine, a progression of what someone would normally prefer first, and natural end points for later preferences.  It would make sense to start with an approachable merlot, a relatively tannin-free, sweet and fruity wine, then move on to more complex red zinfandel or syrah to experience other flavor elements.  Later one might explore balanced and layered blends, mixes of wine designed to replicate French styles (Bordeaux, Rhone, and such), and end up liking subtle pinots and bold cabernets, or just keep try different source-region variations.  Wine that might not appeal to a beginner at all, like a complex tannic-structured cabernet, might be a natural later preference, but that depends on individual tastes.

In tea there seems to not really be a natural starting point.  Blended black tea in tea bags and generally inferior oolongs in Chinese restaurants are what many Americans try first.  Green tea is widely available, but more so in less interesting tea bag versions.  Green tea has some degree of natural appeal built into it, related to health claims and general positive image, but to me it doesn’t necessarily seem a natural a place to start based on the taste.  I did get into tea in part through drinking green teas in Japanese restaurants but later Chinese teas fit better. 
Flavored teas or tea blended with something else could be an entry point that bridges from other beverages first.  To me starting on tea by drinking oolong makes sense because of the softer nature of the tea type.  Also mid-grade oolongs can show interesting character and diverse flavors, and there is a lot of room for continuing to try more interesting types, so the next exploration steps follow naturally.

Pu'er wouldn't seem like a normal tea to start on, perhaps better after more exposure, but then maybe to some it could seem closer to coffee (although it really doesn’t to me).  Even though black teas could be familiar from exposure to commercial blended black teas for me better black teas also don’t seem a natural place to start, but then I didn’t drink a lot of black tea before.  The only time was joining my parents for their nightly cup of black tea before bed (from tea bags), which never seemed to hinder sleep. 
In a tea shop in Beijing a sales person mentioned that younger people generally prefer Longjing (green tea) and older people Biluochun.  Her explanation: the flavors in Biluochun are stronger.  A description like “earthier” might have fit better but her general point was clear enough.  It’s an interesting idea that tea preferences could correspond to age, perhaps related mostly to experience, but people’s sensation of taste can change over time apart from that.  I’m between young and old now but I like Longjing better.

Since tea and wine are so different there is a limit to the usefulness of comparing the two, but since people are the common element it’s interesting to me.

Monday, November 4, 2013

two teas for breakfast

Recently my son woke me up early because it was his birthday (5th).   The one good part of getting slightly less sleep was having more time to drink tea at breakfast, since he didn't have extra plans for the morning, he was just awake.   Usually I'm rushing enough just to brew a few cups of tea and not drop him off at school late.  Why I wouldn't save time by drinking just one cup of tea is obvious enough.

I've been drinking Darjeeling teas lately through as samples sent by Lochan Tea (thanks much to them; more standard reviews will follow), so I decided to try one from Assam instead.  The tea was a Lattakoojan estate Assam black tea, 2nd flush TGFOP, which unless I'm mistaken stands for Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe.

I never drink more than one type of tea at breakfast--who would do that?--but with extra time to spare
I decided to try it.   I picked a second familiar tea, a Thai oolong, a #17 Ruan  Zhi / Jade Pearls / Bai Lu from Siam Teas.   Bai Lu seems most familiar name to me so I'll go with that, with more background on the cultivar from Teapedia here.

The tea I have with breakfast is always about whatever I happen to feel like then, not reasoning out a selection or favoring a type to wake up to, so from that perspective drinking two teas made perfect sense.  Lots of the rest of the day doesn't have so much to do with personal preference so it's nice to start out on that page.

Thai oolongs are a favorite of mine in general.   The two I seem to see the most of here (Thailand) are both from Taiwanese developed hybrid cultivars.  Where Jin Xuan (#12) can actually taste like butter, or might emphasize pronounced floral flavors, Bai Lu (#17) flavors generally include nuts or spices.  This tea was medium in oxidation level, enough to let some malt come through but not too much to get away from that fresh "green" element.  The nuttiness was in the range of a macadamia; rich, flavorful, and complex, but also slightly non-descript, with some vague spice tones underlying that.

The Lattakojan Assam--way different.   The first infusion had a lot of tanninic astringency that really took over the flavor, but you could tell nice complex flavors were struggling to show themselves.   Hard to say how much that was due to the tea itself or messy brewing technique; I brewed the oolong western style and the Assam in a gaiwan.   There is no way I was getting the muchkin to school on time with all that messing around, even with an early start.

Amazingly most of the astringency just dropped right out next infusion, likely in part due to using a really short steep time. The tea was dark reddish brown and tasted like it looked; full flavored, a bit of grape / raisin, but not nearly as pronounced as with the Darjeelings I'd been trying, mild orange citrus, hints of spice too subtle to name, some natural sweetness, and more than all those flavors malt.  But where the oolong was nutty and smooth, with slight vegetal undertones, leaning towards subdued maltiness, this was bright, naturally sweet black tea that really emphasized the malt. 

I would consider sweetening some black teas, and wouldn't tell someone else how to drink their tea--put chocolate milk in it if you really must--but for me it would be crazy to have added anything.  For a few more short infusions the tea lost no flavor and didn't change much, just softened, but then I ran out of time.  During all the tasting I had also needed to eat to keep clearing my palate, since it was breakfast.

I've tried the Jin Xuan cultivar processed as a black tea instead of an oolong, and of course it starts to head in a similar direction, in a limited sense, but there is no way it could approach the same end point as an Indian tea. The Lochan teas I've tried could be sweetened, or drank with milk, or I suppose even iced (which would seem odd to me, even if leagues better than a conventional iced tea), but I wouldn't do those things.

It would've been nice to put more thought into the food, and for it to be more suitable and neutral.  That day I had an almond danish and fresh papaya, a typical breakfast.  The danish was a little sweet but it worked well with both teas; I love papaya but it doesn't match so well.

This picture shows papaya growing at the house, not the tree that contributed the papaya that day, but the tree is working on it.

Drinking one type of tea with breakfast really does make more sense, especially since I'm just not a morning person.  It was nice that the little bit of commonality--and there wasn't much, a little malt coming out in very different ways--tied the two teas together as much as it did, but it was really an experience in contrasts.  It was interesting noticing the different feel and flavors of both, how each worked as a balanced and complex tea but in very different taste ranges, and experiencing that much taste shift.

And my son was on time for school, just barely.

Friday, November 1, 2013



I live in Bangkok, Thailand.  The “ancient world” refers to modern and traditional aspects of Thai culture, and to a silly expression my Thai wife uses.  She is a former journalist with a colorful way with language, some of it unconventional, which wasn't diminished by going to grad school in America. 
Old traditions here include Buddhism, old-style markets with almost no packaging, travel by banana boat, and agricultural lifestyles that have changed less than most in Bangkok have, although everyone in the country seems to have a cell phone now. 
I ordained as a monk here for two months and lived a lifestyle almost exactly like that described by strict Sangha rules over 2000 years ago.  For example, the cat I'm holding in the picture is a female, so I really shouldn't even have been touching her (with that rule applied more strictly with humans).

Oddly they don’t drink a lot of tea here, or at least the kind I like.  Popular teas include Thai tea (black tea with milk, and other flavoring), sweetened lemon tea (also black tea), and bubble tea, a flavored tea variation with tapioca pearls.  There is a lot of Indian and Chinese influence here, and many Chinese immigrants or second generation Chinese Thais, which better relates back to teas I now drink.  The Chinatown here is said to be the second largest in the world, after the one in San Francisco, of course not including cities in China, a different thing.
I wasn’t really introduced to drinking loose teas here, although I had tried some.  That happened on a business trip to China, to Shenzhen, just over a year ago.  My first experience was an unusual place to start, with a relatively formal gongfu-style ceremony, complete with a hostess wearing traditional silk clothes, and with lots of figures to pour tea over to enable making wishes. 
A lot of first-tea-experience stories include “just then—I knew” but I didn’t get it right away.  The tea flavors were very subtle and unfamiliar, perhaps better than I could appreciate, or maybe it wasn’t such good tea, I probably wouldn’t have known.  Later in the trip I visited a tea store and tasted more tea and bought some but I still kept getting drawn into tea more as time went on.

So now it seems odd that the modern tea culture and tea popularity I read about in America isn’t happening here.  There are tea shops but the selection is limited outside of Chinatown, and tea shopping is an unusual experience there, as is just walking around.  The Bangkok Chinatown is like visiting another country (Renegade Travels description).  It’s a place I’d like to get to more often than I do, but I don’t get many visitors here that are obsessed with tea as an excuse.

I’ll try to keep a bit of tea tasting focus in the entries I write, but lots of other related ideas keep coming up.