Friday, March 27, 2015

Gopaldhara Gold Darjeeling, Autumn season tea, from Golden Tips

This is the second review of a tea provided by Golden Tips tea, with their information on it here.

Does it get old for me to say it was nice tea?

it really is beautiful tea

Review section

Nice tea!  Typical grape / raisin primary taste element.  Very limited astringency.  Good balanced character, in terms of complex flavors and feel of the tea.   Other taste elements include earthiness (leather, maybe wood), and the fruit sweetness extends towards orange.

How does this relate to conventional / other black teas?  Oxidation level seems less.  It has been oxidized so calling it a black tea seems right but apparently not to the degree that brings out the charred flavors.  Come to think of it this doesn't seem any more oxidized than the yancha oolongs I've been reviewing, but it's hard to compare due to type difference.

Character is clearly darjeeling,  which is different,  heavy on fruit, perhaps more subdued than some others, but without the astringency that can be a component.

Second infusion was exactly the same, no changes or diminishing.

After tasting and making notes I had the rest of the tea with french toast,  my breakfast.  A more neutral food might be a more intuitive match, some type of muffin, but it worked well.

It could sound like I'm accusing the tea of being an everday tea (implied that the grade is low), but I don't mean that,  the tea is worthy of drinking alone, it's just more commentary, somehow it works for me as a breakfast tea, and I think it would match well with a range of food.  Then again every single type of tea is nice for breakfast to me, if I feel like having it just then.

tamarind!  a strange fruit, but nice

While I'm digressing--sorry about that--I also had some tamarind with breakfast, and it occurred to me the flavor profile was a bit similar:  comparable to raisin (or maybe fig), earthy, sweet, complex, fruit flavor even hinting towards citrus.

Did the tea also taste like tamarind?  Maybe, sort of, but not really.  It reminds me of how tea descriptions really are more limited in scope and biased than they might seem (as discussed in this flavor wheel post).

The vendor's take

A bit unconventional for blogs, but I've also been experimenting with discussing against the vendor's description of their own tea lately (again, it's here):

A delicate yet rounded black tea with intricate flowery notes. The tea brings about a subtle and sweet profile with hints of fine muscatel and an slightly earthy roundness. The lingering aftertaste brings in sensations of dark bold chocolate and cocoa... definitely among our better autumn Darjeeling's.

I'd agree, although I could've missed something on the aftertaste review.

To be honest even though they essentially say it's a very nice tea--and I agree with that--I didn't feel as though my review or this description really captures why.  It has good flavors, good balance, a nice feel, very little astringency to worry about adjusting brewing for--but all this just says it's a nice example of the type.  It's not satisfying.

Maybe a little review of what that type should be might help.  I suspect it really won't, though, that one would need to delve more deeply into really knowing Darjeeling and then even if that didn't lead to giving voice to what is special about certain teas at least the intuitive reaction would seem more grounded.  Given that won't fit in a blog this is a good chance to scan through a bit more research about Darjeeling flushes.

About Darjeeling flushes (growing / harvest seasons)

To begin, this is a nice vendor-nuetral description of seasons / flushes, describing the timing of each and general character:

Darjeeling First Flush Tea - The colour of tea is light and clear with bright liquor. The leaves have floral scent, with a lively character.

Darjeeling Second Flush Tea - The tea has dark colour and strong flavour in contrast to first flush teas. The tea leaves have purplish bloom and has a fruity taste generally...  tea has amber hue and taste is mostly muscatel grape flavour 

Darjeeling Third Flush Tea - The tea colour is dark or coppery and texture is full bodied but it has a lighter flavour. Autumn Darjeeling has a delicate as well as a sparkling character.

Another general reference by Lochan tea goes into more detail, but the part about general character of the autumn flush is still a bit limited (the part about the actual taste of the tea):

..steeps up a full-bodied and naturally fruity flavored tea ... a nice round taste, quite suitable as a breakfast tea and stronger than the Second Flush.

Yet another reference again describes the flushes more in terms of how each compares to the first and second,:

Finally comes the Autumn Flush, from early October through early December. The taste is closer to the Second Flush, with a more floral aroma and a full body.

One might read these different sources as saying the first and second flushes are prized most for two somewhat different characters (brightness of the first and distinct fruit flavors of the second), and the autumn season tea can have a nice smoothness, full body, and pleasant fruit character.  

I guess that works.  It's still a bit non-specific related to the actual experience of Darjeeling teas, which is unique among other types of tea.  I suppose the words really don't do any of the other teas justice either, compared to drinking them.

Did the review I did at the beginning of the month of a Thurbo Moonlight Second Flush Darjeeling fit this profile?  Yes!  I mentioned "the taste seemed typical enough of the type to me:  a grape-iness (muscatel), hinting toward citrus tones, natural sweetness, earthy elements to give complexity, great freshness and body."  Given that I'm intrigued by these season differences I'll still get back to all that later, soon enough.

Talking crazy:  Darjeeing iced tea

Someone I respect a great deal in the tea industry once mentioned that making iced teas from Darjeeling might work out.  I was a bit thrown off.  Of course you could, but really, would you.  It seemed disrespectful to the tea.

Making another Darjeeling not so long ago I ran out of time and put the last infusion in the refrigerator, to drink later.  It was amazing, one of the best iced teas I've ever had.  Of course I don't drink iced tea, maybe except at a local Japanese restaurant, but that's not the same thing.  All this has triggered a little extra work for me in the morning in making one extra infusion of tea, especially when brewing a lightly oxidized oolong, teas that just never quit.

For me normal brewing process would be fine for this; "Western" style, a few infusions, depending on the tea (so breakfast can run long, but after awhile the timing becomes natural).  But I recently read an interesting alternative brewing method for Darjeeling iced tea in a LinkedIn discussion I'll share, with attribute included (mind you I've not tried this, and probably never will; I like hot tea better).  

I would not recommend using this reviewed tea for this (still disrespectful to that particular tea), but there are plenty of mid-range level Darjeeling teas it would work well with.  I would expect astringency wouldn't typically be an issue using cold brewing, especially when adding sugar.

I have been cold brewing Darjeeling black, oolongs and green teas separately since the last 12 years.  Formula:

1. Take 60 grams of good Darjeeling tea
2. Add 300 grams of ice to the tea
3. Add 300 grams of water to the above
4. Keep the utensil in a cool place
5. Strain the mixture after 6-8 hours of brewing, and if all the ice has melted, you will get 500 ml of tea concentrate.
6. Use 10-12 ml of this for a 200 ml hot tea drink but do not put the concentrate over a flame
7. Use 12-15 ml for an iced tea.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Comparison tasting Wuyi Yancha teas, Dahongpao and Rougui

A chance vendor contact (Cindy,  FB contact here) recently sent me some samples of different teas, yancha or "rock oolongs" from Wuyi, China, and since I've already been trying similar teas lately it seemed a good chance to try different types of tasting approaches.

I reviewed the Rou Gui (or rougui) in the standard format in the last post so this is about me reviewing one other Da Hong Pao (or dahongpao), and about trying combined tastings to sort out more details about the teas.  Part of that worked.

2011 Dahongpao

2012 Rougui (reviewed in an earlier post)

Dahongpao tea from Cindy (same provider as last Rou Gui): 

The Dahongpao from Cindy was a smooth and balanced tea with great flavors, feel, and complexity.  It had the typical distinct earthy,  mineral, complex dahongpao flavors.   Good sweetness, good earthy tone,  towards leather.  The tea had a nice feel to it, very rich.  Evenly balanced flavors combine but a cinnamon spice note stands out.  There is so much sweetness it almost seems like the earthy flavors correspond to a fruit element, something like dried apple, or maybe towards apricot.

As I tried these different teas it became clearer and clearer to me that a list of flavors or even feel or "body"--sense related attributes--don't really describe the teas well.  In some ways other reviewers that don't start towards trying to fully describe what individual teas are like, and instead just communicate a couple details and a general impression, might do the tea more justice for saying less.

The complexity in these types of tea is a different thing than the experience of a black or green tea, where that might work better, as a list of flavors and a little about feel.  Someone else might venture some analogy with pu'er, but what do I know of that; it's likely a bit more complicated yet.  Back to reviewing anyway.

On the second infusion flavors shift towards the earth elements, leather and wood, with  the spice and sweetness diminishing.  Still plenty of sweetness but less, a more normal level.

Third infusion:  still good tea, just less complex and sweet, earthier yet.  In some cases dahongpao can shift to some more unusual musty flavors an infusion or two in but this tea didn’t.

Other Dahongpao from the Buddhist temple (see separate post):

Not bad in comparison,  but quite different.   A rich toffee and coffee flavor element stands out, which I'd essentially missed in the first tasting.  It was much easier to pick up in comparison.  The tea seems sweeter and less musty than I remember,  possibly due to variance in brewing.

this dahongpao

The coffee / roasted flavor element is a bit towards charcoal, which could relate to an effect of aging the grower and vendor mentioned, that a smoky or charcoal effect will diminish over time.  The next question is if this relates to any use of smoke, which seems unlikely,  or to the effect of the oxidation process,  the roasting process, which seems more likely.  It was a nice element that complimented the tea but I'd need to remember the taste and try again in two years to really see the difference.

This tea could be slightly more oxidized than the other dahongpao, but difficult for me to determine given both are relatively oxidized in the oolong range, towards a black tea but not that much.  The question is related to the typical dahongpao range, a finer distinction than I usually try to make or really could make.  With the right kind of training and experience it should be easy enough to factor out other flavor influences and estimate a percentage accurately enough; I'm just not there yet.

Combined tea type tasting notes:

I tried tasting the two teas from Cindy at the same time, the dahongpao and the rougui.  It sort of didn’t work.  When tasting the two dahongpao together it made it easier to appreciate the differences between the teas, separating individual taste components, and to some extent even what was common to both, the shared context, the nature of the dahongpao tea type.

In tasting two different types together instead of specific flavor elements becoming clearer it was just too much.  I could appreciate both were nice teas in different ways, and shared some common elements, but in general both were quite different.  Instead of it becoming easier, for example being able to compare the earth or fruit elements, my palate just got overwhelmed and confused.

tea apprentice palate-training with an oreo

I never really did get any closer to pinning down that one taste component in the rougui tea.  It tasted like perfume smells, quite sweet and aromatic, except it seems like perfume would probably taste terrible.  It wasn’t exactly floral, or spice, or something I could specify, although then again it seems possible it was really floral or spice (or a mix of both).  It doesn't help that I'm not that great with knowing the smell of lots of different flowers.

There was some sweetness, earthiness, good feel to the rougui tea, flavors that inclined toward fruit or floral components, but it came across as one continuous flavor range, and really nothing new from comparison tasting.

In the past I’ve had the experience of learning how to taste a specific unfamiliar component by trying the tea a few times, and then it would just hit me what it was, even though it was always right there in front of me.  Part of that relates to a number of different flavor and other elements coming together in the tasting.  Also sorting them out takes practice, so even something that should be obvious like malt or cocoa can seem to blend in at first.  This might be a different case though; not sure.


Nice teas; I liked all of them.  It's probably as well to not get too swept up in descriptions, interpreting feel, concerns about aging and grading, and so on, and just enjoy the tea.  Which I did, along with a good bit of that other stuff.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Rougui, a different Wuyi yancha (Chinese "rock oolong")

A chance vendor contact recently sent me some samples of different teas, "rock" oolongs from Wuyi, China (thanks much!).

Since the vendor isn't a tea company, but rather an individual involved with tea growing and sales, I'll just refer to her as Cindy.  This might be a good time to point out that it's not uncommon for Chinese people to pick up Western nicknames if they end up in contact with Westerners.  She doesn't have a tea web page to reference, but she can be reached through this Facebook page link.

2012 Rougui

Rougui 2012 tasting notes:

Good tea!  Interesting and powerful first impression.   General profile is in the range of dahongpao--appearance is similar, oxidization range likely similar, some of the flavor profile is common--but the character is quite different (relatively speaking).

Rich flavors, soft with natural sweetness.   Caramel and floral tastes extend towards cocoa with a very subtle but rich underlying range of earthy elements, mineral and wood.  One particular taste element, the first thing that stands out, is hard to pin down,  almost like a perfume, maybe tying to something like a mahogany wood taste.  It's strange having the impression of one primary taste element I just can't describe, especially since it seems like there is probably a reference I'm just not familiar with, maybe floral or maybe not.

Second infusion is still wonderful but flavors diminish.  It seems the general type of tea is not suited to brewing a lot of infusions or a lot of tea.  Multiple infusions are still nice but as seems typical the flavors are more intense and different in the first infusion, brighter, more towards cocoa and floral elements, then earthier and more subdued after.

The feel of the tea is nice, rich, even though there is no astringency element which in some cases can interrelate with the "body" of a tea.  I'm curious what age has done to this tea, what it would have tasted like two years ago.  Cindy claimed the taste changes to diminish a smoky or charred effect, which sounds familiar related to the dahongpao from the Buddhist temple in a recent post, or that could be something else.

Rougui research:

I've went on about dahongpao enough in other posts, but I'd like to try and explain what rougui even is, and cite some background reading.

Wikipedia says almost nothing:  it's from Mount Wuyi, in Fujian Province in China, and it has a distinctive sweet aroma.  They say the name literally means "cassia," relating to "cinnamomum aromaticum," surely related to cinnamon but not the same plant.

Makes you wonder about cinnamon, doesn't it?  Time for a nice long tangent;  Wikipedia says this:

Cinnamon ... is a spice obtained from the inner bark of several trees from the genus Cinnamomum that is used in both sweet and savoury foods. While Cinnamomum verum is sometimes considered to be "true cinnamon", most cinnamon in international commerce is derived from related species, which are also referred to as "cassia" to distinguish them from "true cinnamon"

and then later:  Cinnamomum cassia (Cassia or Chinese cinnamon, the most common type)

So cinnaomomum aromaticum = cinnaomomum cassia, which is not exactly standard or "true" cinnamon, but still a common type of cinnamon.  Getting way off of tea here but if you're a health nut eating cinnamon to prevent diabetes you might consider this WebMD input:   

In many cases, the cinnamon spice purchased in food stores contains a combination of these different types of cinnamon. So far, only cassia cinnamon has been shown to have any effect on blood sugar in humans. However, Cinnamomum verum also contains the ingredient thought to be responsible for lowering blood sugar.

So there's that.

A "Tea  Spring" vendor site fills in some details:   Rou Gui is the latest tea added to Wu Yi's famous five bushes (previously only four consisting of Tie Luo Han, Shui Jin Gui, Da Hong Pao and Bai Ji Guan; referred to as Si Da Ming Cong)....  They are also called Yan Cha (Rock tea) due to the pristine rocky areas where the tea bushes grow.

Steepster reviews of  Yunnan Sourcing (vendor) tea:  nothing so novel about the reviews, tea descriptions, or the source reference but interesting for further reading, especially the variances in what people say.  One might judge from the moderate price of the tea that it's a lower grade but really paying a lot for a tea, or not paying a lot, doesn't necessarily mean anything, although on the higher end one would hope they would at least be getting "relatively good" tea.

Grade level and other subjective preference concerns could even be two different things, but that's a longer story.  For these particular types of teas demand seems to be high so issues of cost, quality, and grade all become more important, as prices go up and consistency of products can vary, with the higher than average costs essentially always being justified by the grade level of the tea.

I've read descriptions of different rougui teas than I've mentioned here and the basic character and taste profile doesn't sound so similar, but then adherence to some standard type is sort of a different thing again.

It's probably not the conclusion that everyone draws but for me the most important thing is if I like a tea, echoing my old wine guru's assertion that subjective preference is the final determining factor.  Contrary to that, but not completely so, I do find myself appreciating different things about teas more as time goes by, so although I can't imagine I'm gravitating towards some universal objective perspective some loosely typical experience curve might be a factor.


Nice tea!  It's not everyday you get to try a new tea that becomes a new favorite.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Making the perfect cup of tea, article response

A recent news article about tea put me in the mood to talk about tea, to break from reviewing.  The whole link is here:

I agree with a lot of what is in the article but it mixes together different ideas that don't make sense taken together, what tea enthusiasts and experts would say (or scientists--odd to bring them in though), and what an ordinary person might actually do.  Just to clarify I'm no expert, but evident in the other blog posts I've given tea some thought, and tried some, much more than referenced in this blog.

To keep it simple I'll comment on individual ideas from the article:

Researchers at University College London and the British Science Association claim tea must be allowed to steep for up to five minutes, far longer than the toe-tapping two minutes allowed by most drinkers.

Right, sort of.  Really tea enthusiasts use one of two different general methods of brewing tea (neither involving a tea bag at all):

1.  the "Western" technique of brewing a pot or smaller amount in a different vessel.  This possibly involves one longer infusion (the five minutes they mention, give or take), or multiple infusions for shorter times, with the number and times depending on the tea (and the water temperature, how the leaves are prepared, etc.)

2.  traditional Chinese method, or "gong fu cha," which translates roughly as "tea technique."  This is the same term as "kung fu," which would mean martial arts technique, just without specifying that the subject is fighting.  A much higher proportion of tea to water is used, brewed for very short times using many multiple infusions, typically in either a small clay pot or a gaiwan (like a small bowl with a lid).

my gaiwan, with a black tea from Taiwan (lid not shown)

To adapt the first general method to tea bags it might work best to brew using three tea bags instead of one for one short infusion, say 2 minutes, then repeat for a second longer infusion, maybe 3 more.  Given that tea bag tea is typically so low grade it doesn't matter you could also just use one bag and come back to take it out whenever you get around to it.

A study carried out by Cravendale milk in 2011 found that the perfect cup of tea needed eight minutes (two minutes with the tea bag or leaves, six more afterwards) before it reaches optimum flavour and temperature.  The scientists at UCL suggest that tea is best drunk at around 65C.

Odd the article is now contradicting itself; is it two minutes or brew time or five minutes?  Different scientists...  Really proportion of water to tea is the other main variable, along with temperature of water, an ideal for which varies by type of tea being brewed, so any one optimum would need to address all the different factors.

Tea does show flavors better when slightly cooler, as they say, but it's hard to imagine tea always cooling from boiling temperature to 65 C in 8 minutes (150 degrees F if you're on that page, a little hotter than what comes out of a tap, where hot water from a sink tap is a real thing).  This sounds wrong, and slightly pointless; if you like it hotter then drink it at 80 or 90 C, or let it get cold, it's your tea.

On to the main points though.

Making the perfect cup of tea:

1. Water temperature? Use freshly boiled water to pour over your tea bags or tea leaves

For black tea boiling water is fine but some instructions suggest 90 C is better even for black (194 F), and for other tea types slightly cooler is definitely better.  Green tea in particular will be more bitter (astringent) if brewed at boiling point, so cooler is better, but it's not always just about cutting bitterness, also about optimizing flavors.

instructions with a nice Indonesian tea (follow this link to my post)

2. Pot, cup or mug? A warmed ceramic pot is ideal, but mugs and cups do nicely

Tea enthusiasts wouldn't agree a mug is ok, because using an enclosed vessel retains more of the flavor (essential oils that can evaporate away, if you must know).  Not so much worry about that in aged, badly stored, bone-dry, over-processed tea ground to a powder as in most tea bags.

3. Milk first? It depends – if you are making tea in a mug, add the milk later (because cold milk will lower the temperature so tea won’t brew in your mug as well); if pouring already steeped tea from a pot into cups, then it is fine to have a splash of milk in first.

For most "tea people" this is simple:  no milk, no sugar.  Even most black teas aren't astringent enough to require this, and it detracts from really tasting the tea.  Of course it's all a bit subjective, so if someone really loves blended black tea with milk and sugar it's their beverage to adulterate, but they would need to try decent loose teas to know if their preference doesn't just relate to the lowest grades of tea tasting better adjusted quite a bit.

I just shared a small cup of an incredible tea with a co-worker, a 2012 Rougui I'd just received (review to follow later I'm sure, but this unrelated vendor link says what the tea is) and she asked "could I add milk to this tea?"  After the momentary shock passed I told her that she had just insulted the tea, but I forgave her, and that no, she couldn't.

4. Steep time? anything between two to five minutes (this particularly varies on personal preference)

Right, subjective.  But it's a different story for the powder in tea bags, which brews faster, and varies a lot across loose tea brewing methods.

Conclusion, about that perfect cup of tea:

The perfect cup of tea starts with tea that's much better than Lipton, Tetley, PG Tips, Dilmah, or Twinnings tea bags (no offense intended; those last two make some other decent products).  Even tea sold as high-end premium loose tea in sophisticated pyramid-style bags is a bit dubious; better to just take the leap and brew decent loose tea.

But what is decent loose tea?  I've only thrown dirt on the main products everyone has access to, right?  And not everyone is going to dedicate a part of their lives to a beverage as I have.  So I'll start to answer this, but with a limited scope, just saying a little about what decent black tea is, and of course not really getting far with that.

I've just read an interesting article that informs what tea blending is all about, but it's too much to get into here:

To oversimplify lets say some mid-range quality level product blends could be very decent and could come close enough to making "the perfect cup of tea," even if for tea enthusiasts they would produce a very mediocre cup of tea.

in our break room now; definitely not great, but decent

Ordinarily "better" tea is sold as a single-origin tea; at least it's from one place, even if that does allow for some degree of mixing (for example, a country is a big place).  Really better teas yet are sold as from a more narrow origin, from a particular farm and producer.  Tea from different areas have a different character, and there are lots of other factors, grade, growing factors (eg. how much it rained, and when), harvesting factors, processing (huge variances relating to that), on and on.

Note the goal here is shifting, and making a "perfect cup of tea" really isn't the point; it's about making a decent cup of tea related to what you expect and want.  There's no reason that couldn't continually change, and you couldn't keep on making better cups of tea than you were aware is possible in the past.  That just won't happen if you keep using the same commercial tea bags.

As far as how to come by decent tea (even limited to black tea), the starting point isn't so hard.  Find some loose tea by a large commercial maker like Twinnings, work out how to brew loose tea, and keep on going from there.  Decent mid-grade black tea, better tea than most people know exists, isn't that expensive, and there are lots more sources than it might seem at first.  Of course black tea is just one general type, and the two other main ones, green and oolong, offer lots of range, and there are others yet.

For people using the internet--most of us--there wouldn't be that much to it; click around, try some from a vendor chosen at random.  Don't get too caught up in hype or feel the need to buy $100 (50 British pounds) of tea at one go, or worry about optimizing purchase of the right types of samples, just get started.  Same for brewing gear and method; don't overdo it at first, try something basic and adjust from there.  You really can brew loose tea in a coffee mug, there's just a straining issue to work around.

Tea shops short-cut all that; decent ones will brew the tea for you to try, and you know if you like it right then before you buy it, and can see how they made it.

The real conclusion:

Now I've went and shifted from brewing back to the tea (leaf) itself, probably the better starting point than how to brew.  One could just read tea blogs to sort through the ideas but those are all over the map, and just because someone writes a lot about tea doesn't mean he or she knows much about it, or has a decent palate, or isn't an idiot to begin with.

I'd already mentioned one general tea reference site, the Tea Guardian, but there are lots of others.  That site includes a tea shop finder, since visiting a cafe or a tea shop involves access to the products and not just information, and here is another tea map locator site from Adagio teas.

The take away is this:  to start on making much better cups of tea find decent loose tea, put it in hot water, and be amazed at the result.  Optimizing those steps takes a lifetime but you'll be ahead of most people that drink tea the first time you get that far.

Postscript:  adding sugar to tea (sort of applies to milk too)

A comment reminded me of one special consideration that really fits with the rest of these ideas, about adding sugar to tea.  There is an interesting contradiction in two seemingly opposed ideas:  it's common sense that people can add whatever they prefer to their tea (it's their tea), and "tea enthusiasts" tend to gravitate towards saying that better tea (the processed leaves) prepared properly as the beverage doesn't benefit from added sugar.  A natural derivative from the latter is that if you add sugar to tea you are either drinking bad tea or making it wrong.  So how to resolve this; it can't be that simple, that one side or the other is right or wrong.

One function of sugar is to offset bitterness, or change the flavor profile when the taste could use some adjustment.  It is the case that this applies more to lower grades of tea, or to tea that has been brewed improperly, at the wrong temperature or steeped long enough to draw out excess tannins, resulting in astringency or bitterness (overlapping concepts, maybe not exactly the same though).  Better teas also exhibit a range of subtle flavors that probably are easier to appreciate without adjusting the overall flavor at all, even if sugar and sweetness level are relatively neutral.

On the other side tea preference isn't only one thing; subjective preference is a personal thing.  There's nothing inherently wrong with someone adjusting their own tea, even if some separate near-consensus opinion disagrees.  There are cultural aspects to this; my understanding is that in Turkey people prefer very strongly brewed black tea taken with sugar to offset the astringency; they like it that way, on purpose.  In Vietnam they seem to generally prefer green tea brewed in such a way as to be too bitter, per almost all other guidelines.  Of course masala chai is made with milk and sugar, sort of a special case.

I seem to have contradicted this by saying my co-worker couldn't add milk to a very unique type of Chinese tea I recently tried, that she insulted the tea.  To me she did, but much as it pains me to say it if it were her tea she could've went about adding milk, I guess.  In practice it wouldn't work out that way.  No one would get to the point of seeking out a tea that many tea drinkers have never heard of to drink it with milk.

One last idea relates to the experience of a palate learning curve when drinking tea (or tasting wine, also related to foods, etc.).  It's normal to experience a certain range of types and preparations of tea earlier on, and for those to change over time, along with preferences.  There's essentially nothing wrong with someone drinking black or green tea made from tea bags with sugar, but it would be nice for them if they could also broaden that range of experience and try different teas made and prepared in different ways.  One typical experience is to prefer less sugar or no sugar later in most tea.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Holy tea: Dahongpao from a Thai Buddhist monk

I recently visited a family friend / counselor / astrologer Thai Buddhist monk and before I left he gave me some tea.  A bit unusual?  It really does never work out like that, so I'll explain.

People give things to Thai Buddhist monks.  A monk can't own much at all:  two sets of robes and a pair of sandals, a few personal items like a toothbrush and razors (no need for hair styling, except for a monthly haircut, in that sect).  Some tend to need access to computers for their work, and there are usually some Buddha statues around--that's about it.  It gets a little odd related to "borderline" necessities like sunglasses and cell phones, but in general monks can and do use cell phones, and they typically wouldn't own sunglasses at all.

The main thing people would give a monk is food.  Every day starts with an early alms round at about 6 AM, and monks collect food offerings as the only food they'll eat that day, none of it to be consumed after noon (there are lots of odd rules like that).  The idea is to limit dependency on all material and physical concerns so they eat what's given, and don't eat at all after noon, so the excess goes to people working in the temple or to the poor.  It's not begging; people want to offer the food so they do.

People can give other things to monks.  Usually that would be limited to required items like soap, or paper towels, or "luxuries" like soy milk (they can drink that later in the day).  It's a nice, simple life.  If someone wanted they could also give a monk tea, which I do every time I go to the temple.  Someone gave this particular monk a good bit of tea; decent dahongpao at that.

You might wonder how this relates to the general theme of poverty, not owning anything of value and such.  The tea is of value, even if it is a consumable.  People can donate what they want to the monks, or to a temple, or a specific monk, which they can then distribute it from there.  It really couldn't be anything inappropriate for a monk to own (like jewelry, or a car, and cash is a touchy subject due to specific restrictions about that), but a good bit of tea would just distribute out from there, for other monks or even anyone else.

All this makes more sense related to one other concept:  merit.  If you give food or something of use to a monk you get merit from that act (good karma, essentially, with some specific ideas on how that works out).  If you receive and eat the extra food, or tea I guess, that also has the special (near-magical?) property of being a blessed item, so with extra value and benefit.

It was strange to me visiting a monastery in Hawaii (on the West side of Oahu) where the monks would take us on a nice walk and give us things from their grounds, edible leaves that Thais use in foods or fruit.  It seemed backwards.  But it was part of a larger cycle of the monks receiving support from the community and giving some back, and those items would be much more significant than store-bought foods to a Thai.  And about the tea, it was already good tea to start (with "good" always a bit relative).

Review part:

the tea!  looks like a dahongpao; sometimes leaves are longer

I didn't initially know what the tea was but it reminded me of the different dahongpao I'd drank a number of times before (see several earlier posts).  It was definitely from China, and a dark oolong, so it had to be at least related.  Turns out it is dahongpao, per a Chinese friend's translation of the labeling.

It was good tea, maybe not really high grade but a decent version of one of my favorite types.  It had the normal cocoa / cinnamon spice / mineral / earth front note, with an interesting woodiness, a light softness (zero astringency--the usual), and nice complexity of other subtle flavor tones.

Or I suppose someone else might insist those minerals were really standing closer to the front.  Complexity can be like that.  Per usual the taste changed after a couple infusions, with cocoa and cinnamon spice dropping out and the wood elements picking up, then a third infusion was about it.

It reminds me of people claiming similar style oolongs can taste like rocks.  Maybe...  I'm not sure that's what the category term "rock oolong" is really supposed to mean, so I could read up as a reminder.  The way those predominant flavors mix together it's hard to identify just one, and there is an earthiness and / or mineral element that stands out, it's just hard to pin down the flavor.  Maybe a rock does taste like that, much as one could taste a rock.  It wouldn't be limestone, granite, flint, or sandstone; maybe it tastes like a rocky meteor would taste.  There is also an earthy component that blends in with it, also hard to explain, somewhere between a light hardwood, cardboard, and moss.

As always funny I mean by all this that the tea tastes good.  I imagine a higher grade version would come across a little differently in terms of flavor elements, a bit "cleaner," but this is decent tea.  As luck would have it I just got some new teas from China today (Fujian Province, Wuyishan City; if you don't know what that means it's "!!!"), so I'll get back to all that.

For someone who loves that flavor profile any limitation in comparing quality level to another tea was hardly a limitation.  I could live on it.  If someone else loved grassy or vegetal green teas or full textured pu'ers, or whatever else, maybe it wouldn't seem quite as nice.  The normal criticisms are that such teas taste like rocks (maybe...), or they are thin-bodied.  As my wine guru has pointed out taste preference is a subjective thing, or related preference for elements other than taste instead, so to each their own.

Did it work to magically transform my sense of calm?  Not in the first couple days, but maybe it will if I keep drinking it to let the effect sink in.  Too bad my wife doesn't drink tea.

foreigner version of a Thai monk holding a cat.  look familiar?

Can you go to a Thai temple and pick up some nice tea?  Of course not.  But look me up before you get to Bangkok and maybe I'll bring some and set up a tasting at the monastery for us.

Of course you really don't need tea to feel a calming, relaxed, magical vibe in such places; it's already in the air.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Amazing teas from Vietnam, oolong and black from Hatvala

Wrapping up a lot about Vietnamese teas I ran across a dream tea source, where amazing unique teas are sold from organic farms in remote mountains, from "wild tea trees," harvested by indigenous tribes, hand produced based on ancient local knowledge, and sold at great prices.  Sounds too good to be true doesn't it?  Actually that is the full set of stereotypical marketing gimmicks.  Must be a catch...

No catch, it seems, a local-oriented shop from Ho Chi Minh City, Hatvala (or Saigon, the old name) has sought out teas you'd never expect to actually exist and sells them at good prices.  It's like a dream come true.  Amazing.  And they sell coffee too; hard to know what to make of that.  It's probably ok. 

My two favorites that I've tried from them are a darker (more oxidized) oolong and a black tea--go figure.  They even sell a loose shu-pu'er-style tea but it wasn't as great (interesting and decent but not amazing; maybe I'll write up why I wasn't in love with it, although someone else might be more taken with it).  I've also not got around to trying the lighter oolong or the green tea I bought from them yet.  Most likely it's amazing too; standard grade Vietnamese green teas are pretty good as it is; it's what they usually drink.

black tea!

oolong tea!  more oxidized oolong at that

No connection to the last post by the way (about ancient tree, high mountain tea from Vietnam); that was a coincidence.  If by chance if some of this isn't true--for example, they're not actually claiming every leaf is from an "ancient tea tree," and some of the people making them probably weren't wearing the cool local tribe outfits--then it's still exceptional tea.  These teas don't need any marketing spin related to what's ending up in the cup.

Wild Boar Black Tea:

Typical of unusual find black teas I've been finding lately it's a softer, complex black tea, with great flavors, good body and feel, and an all-around interesting character.  The flavor is just a little closer to a conventional black tea than the Indonesian black I just tried (reviewed here), with a little more of the typical mineral profile and dryness of a Ceylon tea, just not that far in the same direction, perhaps a less "structured" tea, if that means anything to anyone but me.

The main flavors are earthiness, a rich range of flavors that could be described in different ways, with a focus on leather, with some nice natural sweetness and fruit, and a complexity that extends to a slight dryness but with a full body.  The fruit element starts out relatively sweet, somehow right between peach and apricot, and merging into the leather / cocoa element, and transitions towards earthier and stronger leather through subsequent infusions.  The mineral undertone is almost a feeling from the tea as much as a flavor element.  There is almost no astringency but at the same time it's not as soft and "juicy" as the Indonesian tea was, so the character is in the middle, not "dry" either.

Somehow the tea seems to brew much longer than interesting Chinese teas that make a great first two infusions and then just disappear (of course depending on brewing technique; "gongfu" style rapid infusions would hold up for more, I'm just too lazy to go through it most of the time since most of my time is spoken for; I've got kids to chase around).

It might seem like I'm saying something negative about the tea by saying it tastes like leather, but I'm not.  I mean it tastes great and it tastes like leather, at the same time.  The vendor describes it as "rich malty and chocolate tastes" (see content pasted here) and that description is fine, not really wrong, it just seems a little earthier than that, and in a good way.

Normally I wouldn't even mention pricing in a review blog, and I'm not going to reference any numbers here, but this tea is very close to free related to the quality of the product.  As soon as I can conjure up any excuse to place another order I'll get lots more, then promptly hide it from my wife given the ongoing level of overstock.  I still haven't tried two of the teas, so it might take some time.

The next tea:  Red Buffalo Oolong Tea

the marketing content

If more people read this blog I wouldn't even tell you about this tea.  I bought it, it wasn't a free sample, so I could just keep it a secret, or only tell a few people.

Such nice flavor elements in it: a really pronounced cocoa taste leading into a bit of cinnamon, with a rich complexity.  In their take the vendor mentioned "creamy texture..honey taste..hints of malt and chocolate" and for once it was even a little better than they made it sound, and the tea was pretty open about the chocolate (cocoa--a bit of overlap there).  I've not had great luck with most rolled-style darker (more oxidized) oolongs in the past (probably just by chance) but this one was quite nice.

I suppose to some extent loving those flavor elements in tea as much as I do might make me a less serious, less enthusiastic tea enthusiast than others that really enjoy this or that of something else more.  I like the nice rich feel of "greener" oolongs from Taiwan, or the many interesting ways the pu'er teas I've tried play out, but that set of flavors and the general impression just gets me.  This cultivar is from Taiwan, actually (read up a little here on qingxin, although you never really get the full story on anything about tea in one web page, so maybe I'll add more about related reading another time).

Rambling on about tasting and such

Given the line of thought I've been on about flavors complexity lately I considered more closely what other tastes might be in this tea.  Cocoa seemed dominant to me, and "malt" (to me) can be a single pronounced flavor element or else the way a range of earthy but sweet flavor elements can come across, or even mineral components or "dryness." 

Stretching my imagination a bit the sweetness could relate to a faint orange element, or even grape, and the earthiness could be described as light wood tones, or even something like sunflower seeds.  Or I could've been imagining most of that.  The cocoa tone did subside a bit through infusions and tastes more like wood did emerge.  After lots of infusions that became stronger, more like a balsawood, hay, or cardboard effect, a range of flavors some other black teas can extend to after ony one or two Western-style infusions.

Again somehow this tea brews more tea, more infusions, than more oxidized teas would ordinarily seem to, leading back to the question "what's that all about?"  I have lots of thoughts on that but I hadn't planned to ramble them out here, but I'll cite some.

It had seemed to me that the other typically Chinese more-oxidized teas I love and have been drinking don't produce as much tea because I may have been inadvertently using less tea (the dried leaf form is different, and I don't actually weigh it).  It seemed possible that this combined with the teas brewing a little faster made it seemed they brewed less, when in fact maybe not.  But who knows.

more on the oolong

While I'm rambling, one possible indicator of tea quality has seemed to be how consistent and positive the different infusions are, or in other words, if the tea is still great or gets a bit strange or limited over different infusions.  These two teas were still great, on and on, until you couldn't believe it.  I just tried a nice Ceylon from a different source (the Tea Journeyman online shop; I reviewed a different black tea here, but not that one) and it was similar; it just kept on making consistent tea.  That tea type was just a little sharper than suited my taste (more astringent, brisker, whatever) but I must admit I still loved it, just not as much as these.

In conclusion:  nice teas!

Monday, March 9, 2015

Ancient tea tree high mountain Vietnamese tea

This review covers the last of a number of teas I picked up on a trip to Hanoi, and one of the most interesting (but my favorite was that black tea; amazing stuff for an inexpensive random tea-shop find).

I really don't have much to say about the impact of the tea tree being ancient, or the weather, or medicinal properties, but interesting all the same.  

If this really was green tea (which isn't so clear) the water should probably be cooler, but since astringency wasn't really an issue (not in the sense of the bitterness of typical Vietnamese green teas) brewing temperature didn't seem to matter, which I confirmed by varying it.

the tea!  looks like a Vietnamese green tea, except for the color

The back story:

Ancient tree high mountain tea; a good start.

I had assumed this was green tea (it didn't say, and it was from Vietnam). The tea package referenced a website (you don't always get that), but the English button on the page doesn't work, so if I hear back from them about asking about the tea I'll add it later.

The inside label mentions the tea is from "Shan" tea buds, which is interesting. The Shan are an indigenous ethnic group located in the region, predominantly in Myanmar (former Burma), so this isn't really a tea-type reference.

Nonetheless this is a familiar reference, so I'll cite other places to read further about other Shan teas:

-a review of tea from Myanmar by the Tea Journeyman blog (a Shan Valley tea, without description of ethnic origins ties)

-background on the Shan ethnic people related to tea by a Siam Teas (vendor) site, with another separate link to a related product

Links to pu'er:

Before the actual review I'll go ahead and say it; the tea reminded me of a sheng (green) pu'er. It tasted like it, "felt" like it, even looked like it (the brewed tea I mean, but the dry leaf color was a little unusual too, dark but not the dark blue-green typical to Vietnamese green teas).

The Siam Teas product was described and sold as a Thai version of a loose pu'er (really a Chinese regional designation in addition to describing a style, but people can and do make similar teas in other places).  One main point of the Tea Journeyman blog main point was that other unrelated product from Myanmar seemed like a pu'er.

I'm not claiming any degree of relation to pu'er or pu'er-style teas (about tea plant type, or processing, etc.), except saying it tasted like one to me. Here is a nice link to a set of articles to read up on what pu'er is all about, which is a very long story.

a bit dark golden for a green tea

Tea review:

Tasted like a pu'er (sheng, green), with primary mineral elements, tastes like rock, slate/ flint. The flavors aren't really complex, they just cover a consistent broad range, with the mineral component also spanning earthy element, wood.

The tea has an unusual body or feel, thick and rich, with long finish / aftertaste. Tea seemed "dry," to put part of that a different way.

The character is not like a conventional green tea, the flavors are not grassy or vegetal, and the texture elements are completely different than for those typical types (Vietnamese or otherwise).

brewed leaves, a bit broken with buds

not ideal packaging, but maybe good it could breathe a little

My impression, in conclusion:

For someone else that loved this style of tea it might be a great find.  I'm open to appreciating different types of teas and it was interesting, and nice, and definitely a good tea (in the sense of my impression of the quality of the tea), but just not my favorite type.

This probably comes across too negatively.  I love drinking different types of tea and it would be boring and sad if I only drank all black tea and darker oolongs.  Just as I've been trying some darjeeling lately and I'll cycle back to lighter oolongs and conventional greens--it is almost that time--it will be great drinking this along with my most favorite types.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Tea Journeyman Indonesian black tea (PT Harendong Green Farm)

This was a great black tea.  Just to be clear, I mean it matches the type of tea I like, not that it's an exceptional grade of tea or an unusual or rare style of tea (probably some of each and more true of the latter, but not the point).

I've come to like the idea of a vendor having their say, but as far as flavor goes it's this (link to source page here):  

The aroma and taste boast sweet, fruity, and woody qualities. With a medium body, a clean, juicy texture, and a mildly brisk character

The tea!

My own tasting notes and review:

Primary flavors:  cocoa, drifting a little towards cinamon, with dark cherry and natural sweetness.  Trace of earthy element, dark wood, maybe towards peat.  No astringency.   Slightly muddled flavors combining with earth / peat flavor element, not completely "clean."  

Overall impression would probably depend on taste preference,  also feel / "body"of tea emphasis.

I liked it,  based on liking that style.  I had the impression I might've liked it more than the site review would justify; this is just what I like.  I love diversity in drinking teas but I could let green teas and lightly oxidized oolongs drop for awhile based on drinking such more oxidized teas.

Unflavored, high mountain, what else

It reminds me a little of the Vietnamese black teas I've been drinking lately, soft black teas with distinctive flavors, rich wood and earth tones, and with some fruit element, quite good balance, and natural sweetness.  Really what's not to love.

The "clean" reference in the web page and my own notes is a bit odd, especially pointing in the two different directions.   There is definitely nothing objectionable in the tea, just pleasant flavor elements, and a good texture (juicy; sure), so what I meant by it was a reference to a subtle character element, the feel of the tea.  It's hardly a flaw, just the slight room for improvement.

I sort of didn't "get" the briskness either, which I associate with both the crisp flavor (mineral element, sort of) of Ceylon black teas (Sri Lankan) and the sharp astringency associated with that (not completely connected, but somehow linked).  But then I guess the concept could be used in different ways, and it's not as if I'm classically trained in tea tasting.

Related next steps / postscript:

I've been drinking one other nice Vietnamese black tea, not so different than one I reviewed not too long ago, and also an exceptional more oxidized / darker roasted oolong.  It will be interesting to reference those back to this tea.

How to brew:  seems boiling water would work too

I also bought two other teas from the Tea Journeyman site I really ought to get to reviewing:  a white tea and a Ceylon black tea.  Both were nice, all three very different and distinctive, good examples of the types with their own individual strong points.

On a related note that online shop is closing, and teas are being sold at close-out pricing, so if this sounds good check it right away.  The pricing seemed ok to me but not exceptional since I've been spoiled by Asian pricing (the Vietnamese teas I've yet to review are close enough to free, and maybe just a little better per my own preferences).

Thursday, March 5, 2015

review of Golden Tips Thurbo Moonlight Darjeeling

I've been drinking a lot of really good tea lately but slacking about writing about it.  I need to catch up related to some more great Vietnamese tea and three completely different kinds from an American online source (including an Indonesian black tea--go South East Asia!) but I'll start with a short review about getting back into Darjeeling.

Tea stats:  the more interesting points:

-relatively standard brewing, although I have tweaked brewing methods for Darjeeling to offset astringency in the past

-second flush (lots to say about what that means but I won't; it relates to seasonal harvest time)

-Darjeeling black tea never really seems so black (more in text on that, but not resolved there)

-Grade:  of course all the letters indicate the grade details, a nice sounding string of description that means lots to some people, just not me (Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe 1--keep Googling to really sort it out)

The tea!  Beautiful here but stunning in real life

The tea!  In different lighting

The review part:

The Darjeeling I tried reminded me of what first amazed me about this type of tea:  the range of novel flavors, the subtlety, the "wow factor."  The taste seemed typical enough of the type to me:  a grape-iness (muscatel), hinting toward citrus tones, natural sweetness, earthy elements to give complexity, great freshness and body.

In the past some examples were offset a bit by astringency that one might have loved as a counter or tended to struggle to brew around with different water temperatures and brewing times (I like softer teas so tended towards the latter), but it wasn't a factor for this tea.

I recently tried a nice white tea (bai mu dan / peony, not silver needle) that was notable for having good flavor but more so for an unusually rich body, a feel of the tea, and for the way the subtle elements combined together.  This was like that.

The vendor description of the tea is worth a look in this case:

This Moonlight summer black tea is at part the best and is characteristic of fluffy brown-black leaves with extravagant silver tips. The aroma is sweet and flowery with a bright golden liquoring cup. The flavor is extremely fruity and flushes your mouth with its presence, without any sort of astringency.

This was like that!  The flavors were a bit complex and diverse but still combined seamlessly into one continuous experience, so it hardly lent itself to me separating out a few predominant taste elements as I often tend to do.  I suppose if I had they'd have been fruity.  I agree there was no astringency to speak of, definitely a good thing per my taste, although I guess someone else could conceivably love that.

Reviewing styles, level of detail

This review has me considering again why some tea reviews contain almost no information about taste elements, just a primary description or two, and why others go on about a dozen different taste and scent elements that change over different infusions.  Of course this relates to both reviewer style and the actual teas, and perhaps more to the former.  Some teas are more complex but some reviewers are able to go into a lot more taste detail.

In a tea group discussion I've also read a critique of the more detailed flavor identification approach.  But why would someone be against describing taste elements in great detail?  It's not a criticism of the accuracy.  The general point was that to some extent taste is subjective (of course not completely; the flavors really are there), and this is only one element of tea tasting that shouldn't be emphasized over other elements:  finish (essentially "aftertaste," but that concept doesn't do the experience justice), body of tea, feel / texture, (all overlapping concepts), or even "cha qi" (feel, for lack of a decent simple concept, tied to how the tea makes you feel in addition to a direct sensory impression of the tea).

My understanding is that quality of tea definitely doesn't relate to just complexity of flavor elements, and to some extent that might not even be a primary concern.  To some extent it would depend on preference.  To some degree preferences would change over time, so that flavor might be one of the initial concerns, one that would not become unimportant, and other attributes might tend to become more desirable with continued tasting experience.  But what do I know really; I'm closer to the beginning of the process.

At any rate I wanted to cross reference another tea blog about comparable tea that goes into a lot more detail, by fellow tea blogger Kevin Craig.  He describes a different Darjeeling as such:  

the taste is dominantly floral, with notes of roses, geraniums, grapes, honey, toasted grains, hay, caramel, light wood, and light spice.

Is that a better tea?  That question makes the short list of questions not to be asked.  For a few different reasons there wouldn't be a clear answer:

-complex flavors aren't necessarily superior; a few simple flavors can be better, and "body / feel" related factors are a separate issue

-to some extent whether you describe the flavors in individual detail or not the sensation is still there.  This gets interesting though, since conscious awareness and perception in general may or may not closely link.  Here tea tasting drifts towards cognitive science.

-a separate factor like astringency can be critical, and how it relates can depend on preference and type

-preference also impacts how one likes different types of teas or teas within one type, even separate from more general grade-level issues, which may or may not relate directly to pricing


So it seems to be a good example of the type, perhaps a better tea than I'm qualified to appreciate since I've been onto other tea types for a good long time.  

Even though I haven't said a lot about it one odd part is how this relates to other black teas, which I've been drinking a lot of in the last half a year.  It's not really like them.  Per the standard definition it should be fully oxidized tea, but it hardly looks or tastes like it.  It didn't taste of malt, or cocoa, none of the rich dark wood / earthy and mineral elements common to other black teas, or common to their cousins the most oxidized oolongs. 

One aspect of the tea I already mentioned is that it reminded me of a white tea I've recently tried, related the body or feel of the tea.  The appearance is also somewhat similar since this tea is multi-colored rather than dark (see later blog review), and not just with lighter elements or "tippy." There was nothing of the grassy, or vegetal, or often slightly astringent character of conventional green teas (not all are astringent, of course, depends on the green tea), but the impression of a lively freshness was common to those.  So the tea is black but not like other typical black teas, which is actually not so uncommon for Darjeeling. 

It seems shady writing reviews that just seem like marketing content but there wasn't anything to not love about this tea, even if Darjeeling isn't a favorite for someone.  I remember the first time I ever tried Darjeeling and I was amazed at the newness of the experience, as if trying decent loose tea for the first time.  I was shocked, sort of akin to a first kiss, maybe just not quite that intense.  

I promise I'll review other tea samples and have more to say in comparison than "this tea and Darjeeling in general is quite good."  Maybe with a little more type-specific palate refresher training I'll call out another half-dozen flavor elements.