Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Tea madness: three things a tea drinker would never do (that I did)

In the past I've shyed away from sharing my deepest, darkest tea drinking secrets, the exploration of tea drinking that some could see as abomination.  But here goes.

Mixing teas:

It's a subject that comes up sometimes, people mixing different types of teas that don't necessarily go together.  Gary Robson mentioned trying out pu'er mixed with oolong in a blog entry, and more recently Robert Godden talked of trying a blend of Australian and Indian teas to celebrate shared national days (that was the whole idea, nothing more to link to, but Australian tea sounds interesting).  Of course some mainstream tea companies are blending in fruits and caramels and whatever else, like this David's Tea page of chocolate teas--crazy, but that's a different thing.

Gary's post inspired me to try it out, it just took awhile to get to it.  I should preface this by saying there is no need to take this in a scandalous direction, potentially ruining a rare and expensive tea that deserves more respect.  There are more common grades of tea to be tampered with, some of which I've inherited from my wife, even in the form of tea bags, which I somehow generally never get around to drinking.  After a test run or two maybe blending really good teas would be in order.

Back to the point, I tried mixing a high-mountain oolong from Taiwan with a Darjeeling.  It seemed like the teas would brew and balance better if I started the oolong steeping first, to let it open up, and then added less Darjeeling than oolong to let those more pronounced flavors not overwhelm the oolong flavor base.

I was surprised that it worked.  Somehow the two teas seemed to settle together into one continuous flavor profile, with rich, smooth, slightly vegetal undertones supplied by the oolong and high-notes of fruit and earth coming in from the Darjeeling.  Of course there was almost no astringency in the resulting blend.  The mix even seemed to work in later infusions, another surprise.

I tried a similar blend again, this time with a Chinese oolong, and a more even proportion of the two teas.  It totally didn't work.  Somehow the stronger Darjeeling clashed with the oolong, throwing the mix out of balance, with a discord of high-end tastes overwhelming the base.

I personally wouldn't drink odd tea blends regularly but it was interesting as an experiment.  In some context it might make even more sense, for example to make an interesting version of iced tea (but adding ice to tea is too crazy even for this blog entry).

Adding chocolate to tea:

Very recently, after reviewing a few teas I referred to as having cocoa flavors, it occurred to me to check if real cocoa tasted just like that.  I had a few Hershey's kisses with a breakfast, along with drinking an oolong from Taiwan a friend gave me, and I mixed the last one into the last half the cup.

It turns out the tea flavor I was identifying "cocoa" is quite similar to actual cocoa (maybe no surprise there).  The addition sort of doesn't "work" since the milk and fats in the chocolate make a muddy mess of the tea, and it ended up tasting like some crazy blend of hot chocolate and tea.  It would probably work better with a darker chocolate, and maybe with a fruit and tea blend it would make more sense.  Or maybe if I just had some caramel to add, or a few marshmallows...

The ultimate frontier:

Recently I did the truly unthinkable and drank tea made from a low-end commercial tea bag.  I've had tea made from higher end tea prepared as tea bags a few times in the last half-year and that went well enough, and I've had good luck with a commercial grade loose product of Ceylon tea, but this is something else.  And I'll go on to review it.

It tasted like cheap tea.  It was actually a little strange getting the brewing right since in theory there is nothing to it; throw it in for as long as you like, mix in more sugar if you leave it longer.  I probably didn't go long enough first infusion to get the most out of adjusting for the tea being dust, and didn't account for using less tea than I ever do.  In this case I wasn't so concerned about not getting the perfect brew out of it.

It's interesting they added "single origin blend" on the box packaging; not sure how that works.
The tea wasn't necessarily bad, just the blending process combined out what was probably most interesting about it, and aging and grade issues diminished it the rest of the way.  At least it wasn't astringent, or bad in any other notable way, just not distinctive or good in any way.  The taste was balanced from blending, with a hint of the original interesting character, a faint wisp of orange / grape wisp flavor, but in general it was generic, might as well have been powdered.

I have been drinking some commercial loose tea from Ceylon (Sri Lanka), which runs a little astringent, and is nice with sugar and milk.  I almost think of it as a different thing than the other teas that I drink, a different type of beverage, but it's fine for a change sometimes.  I don't really have anything against tea bags, and someday I'd like to try "PG Tips" for hearing about it regularly, but in my experience higher grade tea bags are fine for getting through a pinch, like at a work seminar, but the ordinary grade doesn't usually do much for me.

When I visit my parents back "home" I really love the ritual of having a strong-brewed tea-bag-tea at night with them with milk and sugar. The visits are not so often; I'm on the opposite side of the world, and have a family of my own to look after, so easier for them to come here now. I suppose the taste isn't as important as the setting and the company, some quiet time together before sleep.

I've really taken up taking tea more seriously in the several years since that last visit there but I'm sure I would still really enjoy that tea break.  Of course I've since introduced them to better tea, so there is surely some loose oolong lying around to substitute, after checking again how I like the taste of Lipton.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

May Zest Ruby review (black tea from Taiwan)

This post reviews an interesting type of tea, the May Zest "grade A" Ruby black tea, a premium level tea from Taiwan.

This cultivar is a hybrid developed by the Tea Research and Extension Station of Taiwan, also referred to as the TRES, # 18 in an ongoing series of newly developed plant strains.  As background, not so long ago I'd read more information on hybrid strain development in Taiwan in a Tea for Me guest post by Kevin Craig, and I'd previously reviewed May Zest's GABA teas in this post.  Kevin pointed out the tea type also goes by the name Red Jade.

This cultivar and tea preparation are just what I prefer these days:  more oxidized, towards malt flavors, with interesting complexity.

Tasting notes:

The dry tea leaves were dark and twisted, with a warm and spicy aroma.  The tea brewed to a reddish brown color. 

Predominant flavors were cocoa and malt, which I've also come to love in more roasted oolongs, but the taste wasn't presented as one or two main elements.  The other flavors were complex, very clean, and with a bit of natural sweetness.

Mint, a hint of orange citrus and faint spice undertones gave way to a slight woody taste and even a hint of grape flavor component in the third infusion as the mint and cocoa subsided.

It reminded me a little of one of my earlier favorite teas, a grand China oolong, reviewed here, although only some of the taste components were common.

The most interesting flavor was mint.  This showed up as a soft taste element, more the subtle earthy part of spearmint than the spicy and sharper bite of peppermint.  This unusual taste combined well with the other flavors while tasting the tea, but where the others dropped out after swallowing the sip the mint remained strong, giving the effect of a minty finish.

This was the kind of unique tea that had a lot going on so a lot of separate brewing experimentation and tasting would be in order to really map it out.

Although there was some natural sweetness and no astringency to contend with I tried the last infusion with a little sugar to check the effect.  The small change seemed to highlight the woodiness, shifting it towards the impression of a caramel taste.

Other May Zest teas:

I also tried several other high mountain oolongs in addition to their GABA teas.  Living in Thailand and drinking a lot of Jin Xuan oolongs and similar types these styles seem "normal" to me, teas that everyone should enjoy, or could even start to take for granted. 

Some versions make for great everyday teas, very drinkable, smooth flavored, rich, with creamy, nutty, or floral elements, and distinct characters.  In many cases these can be great tea for modest prices. I've tried the same cultivars from Taiwan and Thailand in versions that didn't work so well from other suppliers, with unusual or unpleasant taste elements that might have resulted from a storage issues or production problems.  Better variations start to show interesting subtlety, more distinct floral tones or complimentary earthy elements, teas that deserve to be enjoyed separately from the daily rush.

May Zest also sells Tie Kuan Yin oolong teas made in Taiwan, a strain imported from original production in China.  To me this is another example of a tea type that can work well at different grade levels.  Even lower grade  versions can show good body and nice vegetal taste components, and more refined variations exhibit floral elements, an unusually full body and long finish, or unique natural sweetness.  These are great options to drinking commercial blended teas on a daily basis that don't involve a lot of tea budget, all the better to save that expense for sampling other more rare and interesting teas.

May Zest sells the full range of types (different grades and types from different regions, some organic, GABA variations, etc.).  This supplier is set up for higher volume sales (wholesale level), so they don't sell samples or 50 to 100 grams at a time.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Google Trend review of popularity of tea

Is tea becoming more popular?  In some sense, surely so.  Consumption of tea statistics show increase (at least as they are commonly cited), but these usually also reference bottled tea as the main source and increase in sales. 

In "tea circles" it's a given that awareness of better tea is also increasing (loose tea, higher grade from a single source, etc.), with the understanding that Starbucks purchase of Teavana is both a sign of this and a likely driver of further increase.

I've reviewed this using Google Trends, a tool that summarizes searches and publications references of terms.  Of course researching tea on-line and drinking tea are two different things, so this would just be one indicator.  Consumption statistics (perhaps not so easy to come by broken down by tea grade) and growing numbers of tea shops might be better.

Trends charts for "tea"

The following trend search seems to clearly show modest increase of tea popularity over time:

Google Trend data for "tea" over 9 years

Reviewing a graph over just two years seems to show the longer gradual increase as flat over this time:

Trend data for "tea" over two years

I had expected an increase related to either the Teavana purchase or NYC shop opening, but it didn't clearly show up, or wasn't that significant if it did.  The letters on the charts are example headlines, serving as possible explanations for the spikes, but there is no mention of Teavana in any.

Since related searches like "tea party" can throw off this data I checked a search of "oolong" to compare.  The search page does show data related to searches for combined terms were searched for, giving an idea of the relative frequency of searches relating to subjects like "tea party" and "green tea":



Trend data for "oolong"

Results seemed comparable; minor increase over time.  The spike at letter "G" identifies a headline that oolong tea can promote weight loss, although it isn't certain that theme is really the main reason for that spike since the headline samples were compiled automatically.

Next it seemed interesting to compare a check of "coffee:"

Google Trend data for searches of "coffee"

Maybe an even slightly more pronounced increase in popularity over the last few years--odd.  There is that one new kind of coffee brewing capsule people use now but the Starbucks-promoted increase in coffee consumption happened a long time ago.

You can also review the changes by region in one part of these pages and for both coffee and tea they show the same general trend:  consistent search volume in America with most increases in different countries, some seemingly random, but the most pronounced trends in Asian countries.  At a guess this could relate to increases in access to the internet instead of popularity of these subjects there.  It's also possible the delayed entry of influences like Starbucks into foreign markets could account for both the relatively recent increase and the pronounced search trend increase elsewhere.

It seemed a check on a "booming" trending subject would distinguish what a real jump would look like, so I checked "goji berry."

Google Trend "goji berry"

Much more pronounced, but I really thought that increase would have turned up earlier.  My wife had me eating goji berries to improve my eyesight and whatever else a half dozen years ago.