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.

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