Monday, December 22, 2014

Vietnamese teas! Green and Black!

I just went to Vietnam (Ha Noi and surrounding, the North) and of course tried some teas.  I liked Vietnam and the teas so much I'll have to ramble and show pictures a bit more than usual.

A stunning country (nice even if one doesn't like tea).

Green teas:  the typical experience

What to say about the green teas?  My first reaction was amazement at how fresh the different teas taste.  The one I had today starts off with a really fresh vegetal kale-like taste, which softens a bit to different flavors as you keep brewing it.  The predominant flavor might be the mineral nature, along with the vegetal character that's never exactly grassy, different vegetable notes with a wood undertone.

One odd tendency of the teas I've tried is they just keep brewing consistently good tea, hanging in there infusion after infusion like decent Chinese or Taiwanese lighter oolongs.

beautiful bluish green tea, tastes like it looks:  intense

Bitterness can be an issue with any green teas, but the twist with Vietnamese teas is some people love that flavor component (astringency, however you put it), at least per one seemingly informed person I talked to about that.  At least one type is even sold as "bitter tea;" not so much of a selling point to me.

The first time I ordered a tea in a restaurant they brought it steeping in boiling water, which of course will bring out the bitterness in any green tea.

The first taste was really nice anyway, fresh and light, but it occurred to me that continuing to steep green tea for a long time in boiling water wasn't going to end well.  I asked for extra glasses to halt the brewing process but it was too late (pictured here); that wonderful fresh character turned extra-bitter.

Of course I was still intrigued, ready to keep on tasting teas.  This was my second visit to Vietnam but since my tea obsession really ramped up after my last visit (when I was happy to check out tea and herb blends from there that were new to me).  This time I was going much deeper for sure.

 Later the same sort of thing happened at a tea shop, of all places; they were brewing green tea at boiling temperature, and not taking the leaves out of the tea, they let is keep on brewing.  They were doing it on purpose!

Actually I was still in denial about that until a forum discussion after the trip absolutely confirmed it.  Aside from that being odd, preferring bitterness, it seemed a shame to drown out the range of other amazing flavors these teas were capable of.

At a shop near our hotel they sold a number of different teas (and coffees) from larger bins, offering the tea by sampling smells.

Only one was a pure green tea (Thai Nguyen Tea--a province name reference), and one other black, and all those others tea flavored or blended with different flowers, and one rice tea.

It would've been sensible to buy them all given that pricing and those smells (that "green tea" bin says 60,000 dong for 100 grams; about $3--almost criminal to not buy the tea).  Tea purist that I am, and given my wife was about to go crazy over all the tea I would buy anyway, I just bought the black and green.  If I'd tasted that black tea instead of just smelling it 100 grams wouldn't have been nearly enough.

Vietnamese black tea

This tea is an orthodox tea, for sure.  You really can't judge quality on smell but at a guess the tea would have warm cinnamon notes and decent malty character.

The first time I tried it (back at home in Bangkok, later) I was surprised at how good it was, a soft, rich tea, with good body, including those taste elements and maybe a hint of citrus and woody undertone.  

This was still a mid-range tea, without quite the same subtlety, remarkable "clean" flavors, balance, and complexity I've experienced in some nicer Chinese black teas, but definitely a better tea than most people know exists.  Better than any black Vietnamese tea I expected to find, especially at rock-bottom prices ($4 for 100 grams; I'm going back for sure, even if the airfare does add few hundred).  Oddly it was much softer than a lot of black teas, nice for me.

I kept on seeing more teas, and buying them here and there, almost all green.  I saw a couple oolongs along the way but kept thinking I'd make it to a shop where I could taste them, and see a selection, and dodge buying one so-so oolong and then wondering if it was regional character or just what I bought.  Of course if I'd brewed the black tea in the hotel room I'd have bought one at random and hoped for the same luck.

In conclusion

This isn't really where I'll leave off because I have a few more teas to try.  One is an ancient tree high mountain green tea (might be nice), another bought from a local hill-tribe village, along with some dried apple chips and local almonds (which are good).

The herb and flower teas are a different story I won't be telling, but that one rice tea showed a lot of promise (the smell did), and one lotus tea I tried there was quite nice.  So maybe some explaining is in order, since I skipped so much:  it wasn't really a tea theme vacation.

trying bia hoi, fresh beer (me, not him)
We visited Hanoi, Halong Bay, Sapa (mountains--cold up there), and Tamkok (hills, I guess) all in a week, and wasted precious tea shopping time snapping up great deals on winter gear and kids' shoes (so mundane; every country has that!).  Vietnamese food was an aside worth wasting time on; pho is only the beginning (Asian chicken noodle soup).

It seems likely I never did stumble across the best of what Vietnamese tea has to offer, perhaps not even trying one from the main growing region--Tan Cuong--in that Thai Nguyen province  (review of one such here).  I'll be back.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Ruby / Red Jade Taiwanese black tea review

I tried a really interesting tea awhile back I didn’t get around to writing about, a Ruby / Red Jade tea, a black tea from Taiwan.  I first reviewed this type of tea here, and I’ve since tried the next year’s version of the May Zest tea, but I’m behind on writing about that too (more at the end here).

The Tea Village version was one of the more interesting teas I’ve tried.  Note they don’t actually sell it in their store or on their website; in the course of talking about teas they gave me a sample of their own.  So I’m not trying to help them sell it, since they don’t, but I suppose I’m not impartial given their generosity in sharing it.  

In one last aside before actually describing tea, they wouldn’t offer samples of what they don’t sell as a rule but do freely offer tasting of their products prior to purchase, which is a best-case when it comes to buying teas.


The other May Zest version Ruby (or Red Jade, or TTES #18) was a nice tea with predominant natural mint element.  I could still detect a mint tone in this tea, but the main flavor element struck me immediately as sun-dried tomatoes.  At some point flavors seem to wander a bit far from “tea” right?  Of course I don’t mean if you steeped sun-dried tomato for a long time you’d get a very similar infusion, rather that the balance of natural sweetness, a fruit / vegetable element that straddled both, and a nice earthiness ended up there, at least to my sense of taste.

rich as it looks

This was a good thing.  It made for a balanced, clean, unique flavor profile.  It doesn’t sound like that would work, or even that tastes like black tea, a mild and sweet mint, and sun-dried tomatoes could all combine, but there it was.  I’ve tried it a couple times since and it’s hard to really tease out other taste elements given how obvious that one seems to me.  

The rich body and feel of the tea is also notable, in a subtle way that is hard to describe (or then again that type of thing is always hard for me to put words to).  After a couple infusions it changes to a slight dry feel to the tea, which also works.

Related points

A discussion on a LinkedIn group covered how black teas tend to produce less than other types, that they run out faster than green or oolong cousins, which can just keep brewing.  Some of my favorite teas are really like this, dark oolongs (near black) starting off with wonderful cinnamon and cocoa tones that drop out as the tea disappears after one or two infusions.  This Ruby tea seemed to last a bit longer, holding up to produce consistent infusions of nice tea. 

with gaiwan for scale--some long leaves

That discussion didn’t get far with people even guessing why this happens, and no one noted that for some reason some less oxidized higher-quality oolongs can just keep on making infusion after infusion of consistent tea to an extent that’s a bit odd.  

My guess about the black tea is that the processing that changes the nature of the tea causes this, but then that doesn’t add much, right.  It also seems possible I’m actually using less tea when I brew black teas (I don’t weigh it), and that they could brew faster, and that those two factors together could make it just seem like black teas brews less tea, when it’s actually somewhat comparable.

As far as being a favorite, this is a wonderful tea but all the same the quality and unusual elements only make it one of the better teas I’ve tried, but not really a favorite, due to personal preference.  It’s odd how one tea can taste like leather or wood and that really rings a bell and another sun dried tomato and it’s only a good tea.  It would be nice if I were preferring these teas because of a sophisticated grasp of balance, body, and finish but it seems likely subjective taste (flavor) preferences might be more of it.

Versus the May Zest Ruby / Red Jade tea

For the same reason a similar flavor profile with a bit more mint is slightly less preferable to me (essentially the same as the tea I reviewed last year, referenced here on their website).  There is good complexity to their version, and it’s a quality tea, but the slightly stronger mint element seems to disrupt the balanced effect to some degree.  

Then again if someone absolutely loved that element, as I do when cinnamon or cocoa shows up in a darker oolong, or malt in a black tea when it’s not paired with too much astringency, this would automatically be a favorite.  Natural mint is a much more interesting flavor element than mixing mint into a tea, which would probably defeat the purpose of using a quality tea to make it anyway.

It's interesting that on their site they mention the type of mint as "peppermint:"  Taiwan Ruby tea is a broad leafy tea cultivar, with tea soup having natural cinnamonic fragrance and light peppermint flavor.  Given how the mint is just one element it's not so easy to determine which mint it is.  After trying the other tea I noticed a sun-dried tomato element to this tea as well, and that was really a blending of elements that might include cinnamon, sweetness, earthy tones, a mild fruit bordering on vegetable, underlying earthy tone, etc.  It all did merge together into a rich and complex profile, just the mint was a bit predominant.  

It's a softer mint taste than relatively spicy peppermint candies offer, so to me it seems it could be wintergreen, but I'd need to comparison taste the actual fresh mints to be more certain.  It reminded me a little of a wild mint we ate from my grandmother's garden as a child, a flavor we loved but from a plant she saw as a weed that she hated.  As they mention it's definitely a memorable tea worth trying, with complexity and balance that add to it's appeal, regardless of which way preference for the mint element goes.