Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Jin Guan Yin at the Peace Oriental tea house in Bangkok

I just tried a nice dark roasted oolong at a newish Bangkok tea shop, Peace Oriental tea house.  I'll cut the research and background section a bit short for this since there's already plenty to say about the shop and the tea, but there is an interesting back-story to the tea I'll start with.

What is Jin Guan Yin

At the shop one of the owners said it's a Wuyi Yancha, or rock oolong (nothing so relevant about this particular tea in this general category reference, but it's still interesting).  Fair enough.  One might reasonably assume that this was simply one of the other Chinese names for types of Wuyi Yanchas I had forgotten, but it turns out to not be so, with a closer tie to Tie Guan Yin, as the name implies.  Of course the cultivar type doesn't necessarily tell you how it is processed, there would just be a most typical style.  And different tea plants can be grown in different places, not necessarily just at the Wuyi mountain, although growing location would affect the tea (the terroir idea).
Different sources say slightly different things, but essentially it's a relatively newer hybrid, "a cultivar that is a cross between Tie Guan Yin and Huangjin Gui," per this Tea Guardian reference.   One other vendor reference seems to contradict that slightly, claiming it's not a conventional hybrid (cross breed of two plant types), but rather a plant that is created by grafting the two plant types. 
Reminds one of grapes cultivation practices, right?  Unless I'm completely wrong--which really could be the case--the idea is that certain plant types produce better fruit (or in this case, tea leaves), but that root disease resistance also varies by plant type, and it's possible to get the best of both by literally combining two different plants into one.  Seems strange for someone to use "literally" to mean something other than "figuratively" now, right?
It's interesting to consider how the tea is "supposed to taste" (of course with variation by lots of factors, so always taken with a grain of salt).  The Chinese Tea Company source describes that as:  
has a savoury scent of roasted vegetables, salted nuts and raisins. Wuyi Jin Guan Yun tastes less smoky than most Wuyi oolongs, but it has a rich mineral character and a mild sweetness of cooked fruits.
That part about being smoky, seemingly what others typically refer to as char, would seem to relate to processing inputs, not the original plant character.  The Tea Guardian source describe the same "should taste like" aspect as:
Fresh batches should not smell plumy though, but rather the Minhong type fruity floral and malty, almost cookie type of aroma in the dry leaves.
Right, like a cookie.  Hopefully like an oatmeal cookie; those are nice.
Maybe more interesting is that different sources describe it processed as a typical more-roasted oolong, that looks like a Wuyi Yancha, with the dark twisted leaves, or else as a typical lightly oxidized oolong, even rolled into balls, or even as a black tea.  Of course I've tried the same tea plants processed into different teas before, so nothing necessarily wrong with all that, although it does seem possible the one vendor just got the tea description completely wrong in the last case.  The one I tried was darker oolong, still medium in oxidation level, if that makes sense, with the typical twisted leaf appearance and malty / roasted smell.  On to what the tea was like then.

Tea shop experience and about the tea


Oriental!  Japanese?  Not particularly Thai.

The shop seemed a little barren, in a post-modern meets zen tea house sense.  It looks like the well lit clothing stores in a mall, lots of wood panels and soft whites, but still a bit cold. 
No sign of food, a limited menu on the wall, with pictures,  not much else.  Sitting at a small table on a cushion would make sense in Japan,  but isn't familiar in Thailand, except in Japanese restaurants here.  There is teaware on shelves on a wall back near a small tea bar, which of course they sell.
As might occur in a high end Bangkok mall I had some sticker shock to overcome prior to enjoying any tea.  Mid-range teas cost around 300 baht per teapot (US $10), with the "Legendaries" section--eg. Rou Gui--at double that, 650 / $20+.  Even for ordering the less expensive tea it's as well my wife doesn't read this blog.
There is a Buddha on a high shelf.  That's not common here in Thailand.  Chinese people put different small shrines in businesses, and spirit houses outside, quite literally a place for local spirits to live, but Thais would ordinarily only put the Buddha statue in a separate prayer room in the home.  It's not a violation of Thai culture, as wearing a Buddha image on a t-shirt sort of is, but not typical.
The server presented the tea in a small pot, along with a large thermous, and gave it an initial rinse without asking.  Of course that seemed odd, really a judgment call, but I'll not dwell on it here. 
He helped brew the first infusion as well, a short one, explaining they recommended three infusions brewed at around 8 seconds, then longer to preference, with the water temperature at 90 C (that part wasn't variable; the thermos was already there). 
The brewed tea itself had a great smell, roasted malty tones, caramel,  fruit components not so easy to separate, but one could imagine the dozen-component review one sees actually making sense.  Maybe a little plum as a front note, not so much wood as in some roasted oolongs, with a great floral scent and trace of unusual spice I've experienced in a rou gui before.  The roast was definitely medium, not light as in other oolong types, but without any char effect darker roasts can lead to.
The second infusion I brewed for about that long, maybe a couple extra seconds before I finished pouring it out, still slightly stronger.  The sweet and subtle plum element transitioned to a stronger earthier flavor, towards a light wood, as usual as one would imagine mahogany brewing (or something such; people don't really brew or eat wood).  A bit of spice kicks in as the sweet and fruitiness transitions, something like cardamon,  but only a trace.
I brewed the third infusion quickly, maybe only 6 seconds,  to see what that slightly longer brewing time changed before the flavors shifted further.  The third infusion was slightly better weaker, subtle, but it allowed the sweetness to shine, back to more plum and less wood. 
When I tried a better rou gui in the past I couldn't capture one flavor component, likely floral, but an unfamiliar version of it, and possibly a different scent altogether, some obscure sweet herb, a scent like perfume.  There is something similar and unfamiliar in this tea.
The fourth infusion is not transitioning much but the flavor is lightening.  I get the impression it will fade to earthier as I brew longer to keep going, but I'll see.
The tea is nice.  But maybe I'm just not used to tea shops, and would prefer something homier, as we saw in Seoul on the last visit, real wood-paneled environments with a different feel to them.  I'm sure some people would feel very at home here, Thais raised in high end malls.
Brewing the next infusion a little longer did work out well.  It's reminding me a little of sassafras now, from a distant memory of playing with plants, not from actually trying a tea made from those roots.  I guess saying that I grew up in the country, in a rural area, sort of doesn't completely explain that.  I suppose I might have just been a strange kid, but smelling random plants and damming up streams and all the rest seemed natural enough then.  When hiking in Colorado as an adult that transitioned to huffing on crushed sage leaves and pine needles while hiking.   Maybe it was something like that all along, sasafrass, but more pronounced now, so easier to pick out.
I eventually lost track of infusions.  That sweet herbal note stayed pronounced due to using longer brewing times, and the tea kept going, but the complexity diminished. 

More about the shop

According to one of the owners about the decoration and shop concept was supposed to be a neutral Oriental environment, not Japanese, as it sort of came across.  The tea theme changes over time, in the first "menu" more Japanese, now shifted to Chinese oolongs, with the exception of a matcha section.  Of course all the teas are farm-sourced by them (high quality, organic, hand crafted, etc.).  That tea was pretty good; definitely not just hype. 
They also sold loose teas; "take away."  The cost of around 1000 baht / $30 US per 50 grams might well have been justified by the quality but I didn't buy any.  Since I keep trying samples from different places, and have other tea source options in China to get to ordering from, it's normal for me to pass on the full-retail purchases like that, but for Bangkok upper-middle-class that should seem reasonable.  From my limited experiences with buying tea in China you really do tend to pay for better grades there, too.  For me it's nice to keep trying different teas rather than just drink the best of what I like so really nice to have tried this one.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Masala chai revisited, tea gift from intern from Nepal

In the last couple months I traded some teas with an intern from Nepal who was working in our company, receiving a masala chai blend in the process.  You can't really judge a country or culture by one person, of course, but for what it is worth she is really nice.  The tea was nice too, not so different than other masala chai blends I've tried, so better than I expected for what seemed to be a mainstream commercial product.  I make that sound like a terrible thing, right?  The whole thing about tea bags gives mass-produced tea a bit of a black eye but such products could still be quite drinkable, I've just never had much luck drinking tea from a grocery store.

It might seem odd to be talking about a cold-weather tea in July but it's never cold here, so the issue of when to drink them drops out.
She recommended infusing the tea by boiling it instead of standard infusion process, just steeping in hot water, as the package also recommended.  Back in an earlier blog post on making masala chai at home I mentioned this is often referenced as a standard approach, which I recall seeing most often as a recommendation to boil the tea and spices, let it sit, then re-boil and sit for longer.  Really it seemed that two four-minute steeps would get most of the flavor out, but maybe it could differ, especially with spices varying how infusion flavor extraction works from how it goes with tea.

Of course my reservations related to this being far from normal tea-brewing process.  Conventional wisdom is that the tea would lose a lot of the more subtle character due to boiling away essential oils that provide flavor elements.  Ok, that's mostly my interpretation, but it's still not typical to boil a tea to brew it.  Far from it, tea enthusiasts lean towards using a high ratio of tea to water, along with very short infusion times, some under 30 seconds for some teas, along with carefully controlled temperatures.

Anyway, I tried it.  It seems to make more sense to write that as a review of the tea as "normally" brewed, then the version I adjusted spicing for and boiled.

Standard brewing, tea mix as sold:

Better than I expected; pretty close to typical mid-range masala chai versions (per my limited exposure) and similar to a mildly spiced version one would make at home "from scratch."  The packaging doesn't list specific spices but it must include the most standard ones (ginger, cardamom, cinnamon), and possibly others that tend to get added (see earlier post for a lot more on spicing options).  It is a tea from Nepal but there isn't much more on the package related to it than that; where it was actually grown, etc.

I first tried the tea plain, without milk or sugar, but I'd brewed it strong enough to really require those to change flavor profile, so it was a bit much.  It wasn't really just astringent, or not even significantly so for how strong I'd brewed it, intended for dilution with milk and adjustment with sugar.  It even seemed it might not be so great once the milk and sugar were added based on that first taste but after addition the flavors all dropped right into place. 
The spicing could have been stronger, but then that's always the case, especially related to ginger.  The package instructions recommended adding fresh ginger when brewing to step that up, really their only recommendation, aside from saying you should boil the tea.  They mentioned boiling it with milk and sugar, implying it would be better to add the milk before boiling, but I didn't, and it's a stretch to take a lot from the phrasing as specific instructions. 

Spicing makes it hard to identify much about the black tea used but it was slightly milder than I expected, but still with a little astringency to support the final flavor profile.  I'm not sure how well it would work as a tea without milk and sugar since I don't prefer masala chai that way; it would require brewing it lighter and adjusting brewing process to taste.


Adjusted spicing, boiled:

I added fresh ginger (thinly shaved slices), a good bit of ground cloves and nutmeg (the only non-standard ingredient), and a smaller amount of cinnamon and cardamom.  I added a touch of fresh ground black pepper, although I don't like a remotely spicy tea, so not much.  I also added a touch of salt, recommended in one recipe during past research, which can be very nice if adjust perfectly to blend in the background but support complexity.  I also mixed in a little lapsang souchong to give the final tea a hint of smoke, which had worked well in testing that blend a few days prior.

I boiled the mix for two or three minutes, then let it rest about three or four minutes, then boiled one minute, and let it steep two or three more.  Although this related to a lot of brewing time, 10 minutes, with a third of it actually boiling, from discussion with that intern it may not have been a relatively long preparation time.  I then combined the brewed tea with milk and raw sugar.

In short, the tea was awesome, probably the best masala chai I'd tried.  The warmth of the cloves gave it a full rich flavor, almost more like food than tea.  The level of salt was good, not salty at all, supporting the rest of the flavors, but even buried within them it was still odd to pick up salt in a tea.  I can't say how much difference the boiling made but the result was good.  

Ginger could have been a little stronger (still!) but it would be hard to overdo ginger in masala chai.  I've read of one way to really get there, to use fresh ginger juice as an ingredient.  My wife makes fresh vegetable juice every day so this would be easy to do, I've just never tried it.  I've tried fresh ginger juice before in vegetable juices and ginger lemonade and it is really, really strong, so it would be difficult to get the balance right, but easy to push it to the edge.  "Cooking" would seem to be a factor for using fresh ginger juice, since even the heat of a standard infusion should affect taste, and boiling even more so.  A Korean online friend mentioned to take masala chai to the next level one needs to pre-roast the fresh spices to help them release their flavors, but I'll need a part three on the topic to get to that level.

I've experimented with using both fresh ginger as a masala chai ingredient and also either ginger tea-bag tea or powdered ginger, and that sort of works too.  You have to be careful of using kitchen spices because those have a limited shelf-life, so adding two or three year old spice powder to a tea will likely make it taste a bit off, and it's even possible the quality of the spice itself could be limited in a fresh version.


already loves tea, really

The tea had such an effect that even while drinking I'd look forward to the next drink after, and there seemed almost no need for an actual breakfast with it.  I'd mentioned recently chai might pair well enough with spicy food but that would be a shame to diminish this tea by blasting your palate with chili spicing in between.  Maybe a different standard Thai drink would be better with the curries here, something like sweetened chrysanthemum or bael fruit infusion.

I re-brewed the mix by boiling for about two minutes and steeping hot for a long time, and the result was slightly weaker but still ok.  It was interesting to try the same tea and spice blend without salt since I didn't add it.  I think I liked it better with that touch of salt, but in a way it still tasted more familiar without it.  It seemed likely the black pepper probably dropped out but I'd put so little in that was harder to notice, and the flavors were all a bit more subdued since it had been through a lot of brewing already.

I guess it goes without saying I love the aspect of getting close to cooking in making such a tea, judging preference, trying to balance flavors.  I've experimented with using different teas and mixes of different teas in the last year, and there's lots more to be done with adjusted spicing.  Related to that idea about a parallel with cooking, it occurred to me that if someone was going to make a lot of this tea they could re-use the ginger as candied ginger, essentially frying it a little and sugar-coating it to make a snack out of it.  But it was already a lot of messing around just to make some tea so I didn't get to that.