Thursday, March 20, 2014

A tea drinking slump

In one earlier post I did the unthinkable and reviewed a low-grade tea bag.  No offense intended to the maker; it wasn’t that bad, but was likely an inferior product to Lipton or PG Tips.  Based on urging from my wife I’ve been drinking through a back-log of tea inventory at home—getting there now—and I’ve sank to even drinking tea from tea bags, routinely.  I have other decent tea at the house, a little longjing, some Darjeeling and silver needle, but not much, and the better types keep running out.

In an earlier post I mentioned tea bags don’t necessarily need to be low-grade tea, but in the case of what I’ve been drinking the teas seem a bit common.   

In the past when I’ve read such reviews it seemed odd a reviewer would go there.  In a pinch why not drink whatever is available, but to review it—why?  Who is shopping around for better tea-bag tea through blog research?  But since it is part of the tea landscape and since I am in a tea slump I’ll do just that.  As a second experiment I think I'll try not announcing the post so it'll be like it never happened anyway.

My tea bag history:

In the past I drank a lot of tisanes, what people called “herb teas” back then.  My favorite brand was Alvita, a provider of a large range of quite decent herbal products in simple bags.  My favorite was sage, followed by berry and floral teas, but I tried all sorts of roots and herbs, and mixes of types. 

Now that I think of it if I could just source good fresh sage--a good quality dried version--I’d love that as a regular supplement to my tea habit.  I tried making it from the herb in a spice cabinet once before and that does work, it just might not be fresh enough in everyone’s spice cabinet to work well, especially if they live in the tropics, worst-case storage conditions.  It would seem possible to find even better product than usually comes in those little jars, too, I’m just not sure how.

Chrysanthemum tea:

(still not onto tea bag reviews yet):  I tried some chrysanthemum tea my wife picked up when I was real-tea shopping.  I had a great fresh version of this in a nice Beijing restaurant last year but the “tea” at home is suffering a little from a half-year of aging under poor storage conditions (Bangkok weather).  Fresh versions of the tea taste floral (of course), with an interesting freshness, a light, bright flavor that is hard to describe.  In tea-tasting terminology the taste element I’m looking for is “chrysanthemum” but it seems possible to apply the same reasoning with other herbs as with tea, and break the flavors down a bit more to what they seem to compare to.  This less fresh tea started towards a hay flavor a bit, not really bad, just not an improvement.

Twinnings Darjeeling tea-bags:

Twinnings teas needn’t be so bad, and I’ve been working on my wife’s stock of loose Earl Grey from them that’s decent.  The Darjeeling tea-bag version really doesn’t compare to real fresh loose tea, of course.  It’s nice that the muted flavor profile also eliminates most of the astringency that can go along with Darjeelings but there isn’t much for interesting muscatel, orange, raisin flavors and such.  If someone didn’t already drink loose leaf tea the flavor would probably seem a lot better.  I tried to get more taste out of it one time by using two tea bags and lengthening the steep time but the astringency kicked back in without the conventional positive tastes ramping up.

Twinnings mango / orange flavored tea:

Not as bad as it sounds.  If you don’t think of it as tasting like tea it’s actually ok.  I checked the package to get some indication what the “flavor” is but it doesn’t say, only that it’s something like 16% of something else they call flavor, which I’m thinking is some sort of extract.  I’m pretty sure it would taste worse if that were just a mix of chemicals but who knows.  Mixing the Darjeeling and flavored tea is slightly better than both but still not much like tea.  One limited benefit of drinking such teas is there is no concern about defiling a better tea through blending so one can basically treat them as a mixer.

What gets lost:

Real loose-leaf tea has unique character, a range of flavors that makes each tea its own experience.  Beyond the tastes subtle elements like body and finish add layers of depth to that experience, and experimenting with slight changes in brewing techniques or just noticing them across individual infusions even more so. 

Pretty much all of that drops out when you drink normal grade tea-bag tea.  It’s like comparing instant coffee to coffee.  The teas are drinkable, and you don’t need to worry about brewing technique or even time very much, but it’s back to just something to drink, not really an “experience.”  Of course most of the expense drops out too, and all of the effort to research and find better tea.  You can buy the tea along with your food in a grocery store, something that’s virtually impossible where I live related to decent tea (Bangkok). 

Sourcing decent tea:

One can stumble across mid-grade but drinkable loose tea here lots of places, in small shops in malls and grocery store complexes, at relatively modest cost.  But to find your way to decent tea in this city you’d either need to be unusually lucky or obsessed enough to put the research time in, or maybe just spend long days of getting lost in the maze that is Chinatown.  Or there is buying tea on-line.  There are even a few on-line tea shops in China in English so there’s no need to buy tea that’s made the round trip from Asia to America and back. 

I keep hearing about the holy grail of tea shops here in Bangkok, the one place that sells really good tea at decent prices, but that’s an entry for another day when I get around to visiting.  I think when I do this tea slump will finally be over.