Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Sweetening tea, grades of tea, and a Thai Jin Xuan oolong review

Back to basics!  Jin Xuan is the other of the two main cultivars one finds in Thailand, along with Ruan Zhi, which I recently reviewed.  This one is from Tea Village, my favorite shop, which is in Pattaya (next beach resort over from Bangkok, famous for a unique entertainment industry there).

In that other blog post I said:  Jin Xuan can have a notable creaminess to it, even natural flavors that resemble butter to some extent.  Decent versions of both are pleasant and easy to drink, with good flavors, and better than average versions can be very nice, but in general the two teas are consistent. 

With that straight to reviewing.


The tea has a fresh taste to it, slightly vegetal, so it reminded me a little of green tea as oolongs go.  Most Thai teas are lightly oxidized oolongs, although some few from here aren't, like two darker Thai oolongs I recently reviewed.  The main flavor element was pretty close to kale, with a bit of a mild spice note, a hint of cinnamon, with a faint floral component and underlying mineral tone.  All those flavors reminded me some of the standard profile for Ruan Zhi, which is typically less sweet and more "structured," with different flavor elements, closer to how oolongs might normally come across in Taiwan.

If someone was really looking for the mellow sweetness, more pronounced floral component, and buttery effect of a Jin Xuan (typically not really tasting a lot like butter, although some do a little) then this tea might not be an exceptional example.  For someone that likes green teas and can appreciate a vegetal flavor profile, but also desires a tea that's easier on their stomach, this might be just perfect.  For me that problem with green tea only relates to drinking it without any food, and then only when I drink a good bit of it, so green tea paired with anything to eat is fine.

As is standard the flavors were relatively "clean," nothing unpleasant at all, with a nice finish / aftertaste, just not really exceptional related to that compared to some other similar style teas.  The tea brewed a lot of very consistent infusions, also typical for good examples of the general type. 

This is starting into tea enthusiast blasphemy, but I tried the tea with a little sugar in it.  What is so terrible about that?  I'll spell it out after describing how it worked out.  With the limited natural sweetness supplemented with sugar the vegetal flavors were a bit subdued and the character changed, closer to how sweeter Jin Xuan versions come across, so for some the tea would be great that way.

Since I don't drink sugar in most teas (few, really) it tends to make the tea taste like sugar, although in this case it worked well, a little extra sweetness helped shift the effect of the whole flavor profile.   

The rambling-on section:

Why not add sugar to tea?  If you like it that way then do it.  But there are reasons not to:

1.  because you're a tea purist:  not really the best reason, to adjust tea drinking according to your perception of  tea drinker status.  But it could work out related to developing palate and preferences, to drink your tea related to image instead of how you actually like tea.

2.  because is masks or changes the natural taste of tea:  to me this works better as a good reason, and is really what the first point is supposed to be about.  White sugar is a neutral sweetener, adding little flavor besides "sweetness," still that shifts the flavor profile and can make it harder to taste other flavors.  But really, a little matters less for this for covering up the taste.

3.  because the best teas don't need it:  not really a reason, right, you're either drinking the best teas that don't need any adjustment (according to your own preference, of course) or you're not, and either way adding a sweetener is a judgment call.  But taken together 2 and 3 say that if you are sweetening tea you are most likely drinking bad tea (or at least inferior tea), and by extension that you aren't a tea purist.  Taken one way all of this could be experienced as a pressure to drink your tea a certain way (unsweetened--but I guess it could extend to milk).  Of course this assumes a certain degree of exposure to these ideas and people making claims about sugar and tea.

For a relatively astringent tea maybe all this shifts a bit, more related to black teas.  You can "brew around" the astringency (bitterness, roughly) by adjusting temperature and brewing time (lowering both) but one might also offset this by adding sugar to compensate.  Or so it seems to me, but since this is purely in the realm of taste I guess someone could sweeten anything, even for those teas about which reviewers tend to say "don't add sugar to this."

Grade and cost related to tea

Related to grade, I recently started a discussion about Awareness of Tea in Thailand on an expat forum here.  Normally people go by pen-names (an alias?) but I guess for the sake of mentioning it I'll give up my anonymity there, which I wasn't really using anyway.  The point I was making there, part of a larger discussion, is that if cost is an issue then tea grade or quality is also an issue, and this ties back to the issue of sweetening tea.  Or so it seems to me.  The type of tea preferred also relates, and how much sweetness one likes in tea.

This would be the second tea reviewer faux-pas in one post, a lot for even me, but I'm going to venture into the one subject people are even less likely to address than sweetening tea:  cost.  I only went down that road because it kept coming up in that discussion.  People pushed me to it by claiming they drink tea-bag tea because of cost issues, which I don't accept; it's an awareness problem. 

Convenience is a real issue too (tea-bags travel well) but I can only take on so much in one discussion or post so I'll get back to that eventually.  I mentioned the actual price of the tea I just reviewed there (the Jin Xuan) but I'll leave it out here (it's on their site anyway), but suffice it to say it's a good price for a Thai tea in Thailand, not what someone could find in a region like the US.  Add a bit for shipping and someone could; the world is getting to be a smaller place now.

About that discussion, I'll quote myself at length:

The point is the pricing is low enough that anyone drinking tea-bag tea to save money beyond that might not be thinking it through.  The [Jin Xuan] oolong is much better tea (of course that's a judgment call; someone else might really like Lipton's better).  It's not a fair comparison since one is black and the other lightly oxidized oolong anyway.
What would be the next level up, for grade?  It's not exactly just a move upwards since tea-type flavor profiles differ but roughly speaking a reasonable grade of Tie Kuan Yin would be.  That cultivar (plant type) can be grown in Thailand but it's not common, and most likely better versions would come from Taiwan or China.  Of course how good a tea is depends on the tea, not where it's from, since it's based on lots of factors, some related to growing, others processing, even storage. 
Tea Village sells a Tie Kuan Yin for $7.85 for 50 grams, definitely not a higher grade of the tea for that reasonable a price, but most of their teas are a good version.  I think I did try it sampling different teas with the owner but I'm not really prepared to offer tasting notes.  Compared to the Jin Xuan it would be more floral in flavor profile, a little sweeter, perhaps slightly "cleaner" flavors, more refined, and often it will brew more infusions than other teas (although that Jin Xuan can be brewed a number of times consistently, whereas black teas maybe two or three depending on how you make it).
I'm not pushing their tea with this example, the point is explaining how grades work.  If you don't mind spending three times as much for a couple dozen cups of tea--still not a lot--the taste is different, and perhaps even the aftertaste or body (feel) of the tea.  If that cost is a factor then adding a little sugar may make a similar difference, it just wouldn't be exactly the same.

By extension I'm sort of implying that if cost isn't a factor, that if someone has $20 or $30 a month to spare on tea, with no concern about that expense, then they might well drift towards drinking better teas, and keep drifting, exploring new and better teas.  That can happen.  I like to drink a lot of types of tea, to mix it up, and I don't mind some being common grade / everyday tea (just not Lipton's--too common grade), but I would sorely miss drinking some better teas as well.

So I guess I'm indirectly condoning drinking ordinary grade tea, and sweetening it, although it's really not my place to accept or reject that. 

Good black tea is similar to that in some ways but quite different.  If someone likes tea from tea bags and wonders what better grades would be like I've reviewed some here, not investment-grade high-commitment cost tea but decent tea.  This is one from Hatvala in Vietnam that I loved ("Wild Boar") that cost next to nothing, and another was even better from Indonesia, from PT Harendong Green Farm, not expensive but not an amazing value like the other. 

If the teas sound interesting buying a good bit from Hatvala is probably the natural place to start (contact here); it would make a great everyday black tea but it's really much better than that.  That said I liked the darker oolong I reviewed a little better (the Red Buffalo), and other people might prefer completely different teas, different types, different grades, who knows what other differences.

Of course black tea starts to mean very different things in other countries.  I could go on citing and linking and for awhile but it would be too much; suffice it to say there's a lot to it.  No matter what direction personal preference leads it doesn't work to explain to a tea enthusiast that there is a good reason to just stick with Lipton's (no offense intended about their tea, it's just not good).

not about tea; a Thai temple from a river ferry

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