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.