Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Mulberry leaf tea, a Thai herb tea / tisane. And a super-food!

I've only reviewed one tisane (herbal tea) here before, coffee leaf tea, but this makes for a great second go at that.  This was part of the set of teas and herb teas that my wife's aunt picked up for me on a trip to the North of Thailand, the Chiang Mai area.  From here on I'm just going to say "tea" related to it because "tisane" or "herbal infusion" sounds unnatural to keep repeating (but I get it that's it's not really tea).  Of course there are some tea purists who would hate to see the word tea used that way, but they wouldn't even click on a post about an herbal tea anyway.

Mulberry leaves

When I first tried the tea I didn't know what it was, since the tea label was in Thai (it did say the Thai word for mulberry tea, bai hmon, not that I could read that).  It didn't look right for tea, but then since I'd just tried two unconventional looking Thai teas I couldn't be sure.

The dried leaf smells like a cross between dried seaweed and toasted sesame, but I guess much nicer than that sounds, warm and earthy and sweet, a clean smell.

The brewed tea / infusion isn't that far from tea made from a tea plant, just not really the same.  It has a rich, smooth, slightly sweet, earthy flavor, which comes across much closer to toasted sesame than the seaweed smell.  Japanese and Korean people, and Thais to some extent, all eat dried seaweed snacks that are a little different than what washes up on the shore or are used in sushi or miso soup; I want to say better, but of course that's all about preference.

you really could just call them up, dial "66" then drop the "0"

There is one other taste that is familiar in this tea, the same flavor element in the coffee-leaf herb tea (the Wize Monkey products).  I'll reference that blog post here, with two people saying what that taste reminded them of, but I never could identify it since those references I hadn't tried.  One said it tasted like guayusa, which I can't confirm.  I've been out the US for the last decade of trendy super-herb cycles, part of that in Hawaii, where they don't care so much for haole trends.  But I guess it does still work to say it tastes like coffee-leaf tea, generally a good thing.  The effect is somewhere between a nice soft mid-roasted oolong and juicy-fruit gum; tasty.

Mulberry leaf infusion

A bit of a tangent, but in that coffee-leaf tea post I mentioned that working through options for mid-level roasting might really push that product over the top.  It was essentially like a mild green tea, with absolutely no astringency, with that catchy hard-to-describe taste.  Maybe it was closer to a white tea in processing, since it didn't seem likely to require much in the way of a fixing / kill green step, but it's not as if they said a lot about that.  At any rate I've since read they were working on trials of different processing so maybe it has been changed around since.

Of course one nice thing about a tisane is the forgiving brewing process.  The standard approach is hot water, boiling point or very near it, for a longer time, 4 to 5 minutes, but it's not as if anything really ruins the tea.  Brewing for less time with cooler water would just result in a lighter tea; letting it sit and sit doesn't ruin it (I tested that once by forgetting it for awhile).  The tea is so mellow and smooth even a baby could drink it, which I also tested on my one year old, who liked it.  But then I would expect that since she's a fan of lightly oxidized oolongs.

drinking tea, driving a car--they grow up so fast

Health benefits / places to buy this tea

Tea Village:

One of my favorite tea shops in Thailand, specializing in good teas at reasonable prices.  Good is a relative word when it comes to tea; read as quite decent versions but not the highest end rare-tea type, which is a different type of good value that perhaps less people can appreciate.  Their assessment:

Mulberry Tea is rich in antioxidants, which play a key role in strengthening the immune system and reducing cholesterol levels. Mulberry leaves are rich in vitamins and minerals like calcium, potassium, sodium, magnesium, iron, zinc, vitamins A, B1, B2, C and the amino acids necessary for the body. 

Ebay shop (in Spain, might make more sense for Europeans):

An online contact has an herb shop so may as well reference that; this is a tea-bag version.  As a loose tea purist (the other kind of tea) tea-bags are sort of the enemy but I guess this kind of thing makes sense for some, and some of the evils of tea-bag camellia sinensis are less likely to apply (I won't even start on all that).

As far as cost goes you really pay for someone putting it in bags, and for buying it in the West:  these run $20+ (12 pounds) for 120 tea bags, 180 grams of herb, related to about $8.50 for the loose herb in that shop.  But then it is in Thailand; you should see what we pay for tropical fruit here.

Related to health claims, from that page:

Its active ingredients are known to promote healthy liver & kidneys, promote proper blood circulation, reduce high blood pressure (hypertension), reduce the effects of hangover and lower blood sugar closely related to diabetes.

That is what you hear here, that it's really good for you.  When I hear that about tea--real tea--I'm always thinking "yeah, maybe," but in this case I got it in my head to research it.  I must admit I was a bit skeptical of the amino acid claim; that's protein, found in some plants like beans and legumes, but in a leaf?

Nutritional and health claims reviewed

Anything to all that?

This is about as good a source as one's going to get on nutrition, the related entry for the National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine:

The results showed that in fresh mulberry leaves the proximate composition values ranged ... from 4.72 to 9.96% for crude protein...

Dang, there it is, protein, the amino acids.  And then:

Among vitamins ascorbic acid [C] and beta-carotene [A] were found to range from 160 to 280 mg/100 g and from 10,000 to 14,688 microg/100 g, respectively, in fresh mulberry leave.... The minerals iron, zinc and calcium were observed in the ranges of ...

I know what you are thinking:  sure it's great that those are in there--and they missed mentioning a lot of those vitamins in that one claim--but really how do those relate to actual dietary amounts.  I'm glad you asked; check this out:

NutrientEARRDA/AIUL[5]UnitTop Sources in Common Measures, USDA[6]
Vitamin A6259003000µgturkey and chicken gibletslivercarrotspumpkinsweet potato
Vitamin C75902000mgguavasorangesgrapefruits, frozen peaches[i] bell peppers
EAR: Estimated Average Requirements; RDA: Recommended Dietary Allowances; AI: Adequate Intake; UL: Tolerable upper intake levels.

It messes with your mind trying to map out how this relates to how much someone would brew.  The nutritional values are for 100 grams of leaf, but then the tea bags only included a gram and a half.  I'll make it easy for roughing out what this means and go with 5 grams, 1/20th that total (probably a little more than I actually brewed loose, but not that much more), and then crunch those numbers.

It all checks out.  That sizable dash of leaves would contain most of the Vitamin A you need for the day (kind of crazy, when you think about it), but only around 10% of the C (not bad though).  From an herb tea.  Of course a dietitian could push on to the next level about absorption rates and other possible problems in this analysis, but lets move on to consider one more point.

Could this really help with diabetes at all, to cite an example of another crazy claim.  Sure, or so the American Diabetes Association says related to just one study.  One study with limited conclusions is quite far from the fact of the matter but maybe something to at least some of that stuff.

I'll stay skeptical about the miracle-cure super-food style claims but at a glance it probably is really good for you.  People should probably drink more real tea anyway.  Tons of health claims get thrown around about it too, some of which could be true, and drinking a really good dark-roasted oolong can be a semi-mystical experience.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Ban Tian Yao Wuyi Yancha from Jip Eu shop in Bangkok, Chinatown

An online contact posted about a great looking tea from an interesting shop in Chinatown, which I bought recently.  It's a Wuyi Yancha, my favorite general type so far, but a good bit different than the others I've tried:  Da Hong Pao, Rou Gui, Shui Xian, Shui Jin Gui, and Jin Guan Yin (I'll spare you most of the links, those might already be familiar, but Jin Guan Yin might not ring a bell).

Background, the shop:

Bangkok Chinatown, Yaowarat Road

I bought the tea from the Jip Eu tea shop (FB page link).  It's on a street off the main part of Yaowarat, the road with the classic sign look, much like Kowloon in Hong Kong.  It looked like a Chinatown tea shop should, on the small side, nothing too fancy, just lots of teas on basic shelves, more in packages than loose tea.  They had prepared the tea I bought earlier as a sealed separate package, to avoid the issue of opening and closing larger containers along with related air exposure. 

As I walked in another customer was buying lower grade Shui Xian in significant bulk, maybe a kilo of tea, which I found was selling for very little (something like 150 baht / $5 for a good bit of tea--next to nothing).  I tried that tea they had brewed but it was ordinary grade tea, nothing too interesting, which I wasn't really there for.

I asked for this tea, Ban Tian Yao, and the shop employee, the owner's wife, seemed a bit surprised someone unfamiliar would ask for it.  She said it one regular customers further along into tea preferences would know about and ask for.  She explained why the pricing was so much higher than some other types, all of which is familiar enough territory; they don't make lots of better teas.  Apparently beyond that this tea type you just don't come by frequently.

non-optimum storage; not this shop

You might think it would be easy to find such places in Chinatown, that traditional style tea shops would be all over the place, and in fact I walked by another getting there.  It's hard to know what is what though related to shops, without significant online presence to indicate that in advance, and the shops I've seen in the main part of Chinatown are more street-stall style, selling more bulk teas not really stored well for maintaining them, in large jars, or even exposed to air in open bins (crazy!).

The tea:

The tea looked and smelled like a darker version of a Wuyi Yancha than I've tried, a very dark roast, but with inconsistent coloring in the leaves.  The smell was distinctive but unfamiliar, wood and leather, a pleasant sweetness, but another element was harder to place, mineral in nature.

As I brewed cup after cup of the tea in a gaiwan--still not into the clay pots yet; feel free to stop reading this if it makes that much difference to you--the nature of that one element became clear, although still hard to describe.  Most of the flavor profile was like other darker / more oxidized Wuyi Yanchas I've tried, perhaps not as wood and leather related as Da Hong Pao tends to be or aromatic as Rui Gui. That one flavor element was something novel, integrated with the other profile, but distinct.  I'll come right out with it:  it tasted like ink, or at least like ink smells. 

It's always a bit strange when flavor elements relate to things that aren't foods, when one struggles to compare a tea to rocks or wood, never mind flowers, but no one ever drinks ink, so maybe that's not exactly it.  I've tried the version squid produced, sharing the same name--squid ink--typically used in a pasta sauce, and it must share some flavor with what comes out of pens, but surely is quite different.  Some of the same wood / leather / earth tones were present, and aromatic elements that were hard to place, and that one component was related to the dark roasted nature enough that it could've been interpreted closer to charcoal, but it wasn't just char.

Of course the feel of the tea was also distinct, rich and smooth, with a little astringency to give it a different body than some softer Wuyi Yancha possess.  The tastes and feel did shift a bit over infusions, with wood elements picking up a little, and sweetness varying, so it started to trace a little towards caramel at one point (usually it's toffee, right, but the two are close enough).  Even given all that it was hard to get past that one novel element, which was interesting, just different.

The second time I had the tea it seemed like maybe that one distinct element could be described better as tar, although hard to say if that related to me varying brewing or me getting my palate around an unfamiliar flavor element.  For a lot of people that might sound terrible, a tea tasting like tar, but it was nice, if not the most positive taste element I've ran across in a tea.

For an experienced wine drinker this might make perfect sense as a positive aspect, related to flavors found in Red Zinfandel.  That wine isn't the typical preference end-point for most experienced wine drinkers but a good middle ground for working through unusual flavors, odd fruity, jammy, and spicy wines, and some few might taste a little like tar.

An aromatic component seemed slightly stronger that second time too, reminding me of an experience found in some Rou Gui's.  It reminded me of someone recently saying that Darjeelings tasted like perfume to them, something I'd noted in a Rou Gui post here before.  I was using it as a positive description, but that person cited it as a reason for not drinking Darjeelings.  To me those generally seem a bit fruity (muscatel, right), often with a notable astringency (compared to Chinese black teas) that might either be positive or a deal-breaker depending on preferences.  The teas I've tried are still softer than what I've tried of Assam and Ceylon teas, which is a bit limited, if you don't count lower grade versions that can be a bit non-distinct.

Researching the type:

I ran across an old blog post about this tea that didn't really ring any bells, and doesn't really have much description to cite, but it was interesting.  The idea of aging Wuyi Yancha to reduce the char taste came up, but I've been through all that in earlier posts.

One of my favorite bloggers, Amanda, reviewed a different version, with this description excerpt:

There are also notes of char, which moves on to a rich tobacco and molasses at the middle. The finish is cocoa and of course mineral which lingers for quite a while.

Of course I was already wondering if this tea wouldn't be different and better in a year or two, and this other tea's description reminded me of that, since it didn't seem to have the same degree of complexity in tastes, and was dominated by an element that may relate to the roasting influence that is said to dissipate later.

I didn't get far researching this tea; there are only vendor pages to review and the odd blog post.  One group buying site (?) said one version tasted typical for Da Hong Pao, like strawberries and chocolate (?).  TeaDB had a little, not much, so I'll add that and move on:

Ban Tian Yao (半天腰) is a Wuyi Oolong with complex flavors. Because this tea is traditionally roasted over charcoal it gets sometimes a light smoky taste. Ban Tian Yao means literally "Halfway to the Sky". The name is given due the fact that the tea is grown very high on the cliffs - halfway to the sky.

Getting past reviewing as a taste-by-taste description

When more experienced tea drinkers review teas they sometimes barely note the taste of the tea and move directly on to components that are a bit more subtle, mostly related to the feel of the tea, in terms that wouldn't be familiar to most, not so easy to express, and also about aftertaste and finish, and the way the tea makes you feel, qi. 

This tea had a lot going on beyond the taste, and the initial review I mentioned was not related to flavors so much.  Of course it makes it hard for me to write about this related to a tea because these elements are less familiar and less open to description.  Really concepts start to fall short regardless of where one encounters them, no matter how they are structured.

I'll cite some of that original review reference, from a tea drinker much more experienced than myself, reviewed with his permission to reprint.  That person is JP Tan, active on Facebook tea groups, including the Cha You group, which I'll cite as the source for this.

半天妖, Ban Tian Yao is an old Wuyi tea. ...  Translated literally it means the Demonness from mid heaven.
The brew is dark but clear typical of charcoal roasted tea. The top notes perceptible as you pour the tea is one of the roast that the tea has undergone. Some would say like coffee. Soon floral notes takes over, notably light but heady.
On the palate, sweetness is more pronounced than bitterness. Characteristics of rock tea, the plum like sourness is tinged lightly on the sides of the tongue. All this soon gives way to the astringency that spreads all the way to the back of your throat. It dries to a lovely sweetness that envelopes your whole mouth and throat like a demoness weaving spells to tear your senses asunder. Then all of a sudden calmness prevail and you realise you are at sheer cliffs of Wuyi mountains. Herein lies the beauty of Wuyi Teas.

Sounds great, right?

This and further discussion with him reminded me of another post that I'm working on, more about the experience of teas aside from the taste, cited from an expert reference source.

She claims she isn't an expert, but her background and tea perspective--"knowledge" doesn't really capture it--definitely imply otherwise.  To paraphrase one well-known tea vendor (expert?), stated in the opposite direction of this inference, someone claiming they are a tea expert might potentially indicate they aren't one.  No offense intended to tea sommeliers, which should relate to a real experience reference, but then few should be reading this blog anyway (thanks though, to the one that helps with comments).

So what I mean is more to follow on tea experience, related to how someone making these teas sees some of these other aspects.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Looking to score some Tie Kuan Yin?

Not so long ago I met an expat here looking into selling tea (Anthony; I'll pass on more contact information later if it becomes relevant).   This post will include a review of a nice tea he sold me, a Tie Kuan Yin, and a bit about selling tea.

One of lots of people's favorite tea bloggers, Nicole, wrote advice about this not so long ago, some things to consider before starting this type of business.  Most of it is sort of common sense, really basics to think through.  Two online contacts that sell tea--maybe friends, depends how one uses the concept--have told me that doing it for the love of tea and the connections it helps maintain instead of financial returns are the key to them staying in business, and two other online contacts have closed tea businesses in the last year, so it's my understanding that it's not so simple.

Everyone knows tea is becoming more popular, even here in Thailand where that trend is less pronounced, but the process will take time.  Businesses succeed or fail in months or a couple of years while beverage preference trends and specific product demands run at their own pace.

This contact is early in the process; it may or may not go as far as a serious attempt at a business.  It's not so difficult to come by tea at some version of wholesale prices in a country that grows tea--Thailand does; most of Eastern Asia does--but finding better grades of tea and more interesting products are a different story, especially related to putting it all together as a business, and "wholesale" can mean different things.

I picked up the teas at an expat social function in Bangkok, in a hand-over that wouldn't have been so different if it was something the law didn't allow me to have, it would've just been less out in the open.  I bought the tea pretty much at a normal retail rate here--but then it all depends on grade, doesn't it?--for a price lots of tea drinkers in other countries would like to run across.  The different teas were nice, familiar, Jin Xuans and Ruan Zhis, just not really exceptional, teas you can find lots of places.  Up until a recent stroke of luck in my aunt finding unusual hill-tribe produced oolong and black versions of Thai teas were mostly like that for me, consistently good, not really ever great, with a few exceptions (like this Oriental Beauty style Thai tea).

One recurring theme in my perspective on tea is that it doesn't always need to be great; that lots of people drinking tea from tea bags--long story about that--or bottled tea, coffee, whatever else, could discover ordinary grades of products that could open new worlds for them.  I walk by a dozen bubble-tea vendor stands and a few coffee shops every day and can't help but think their customers all could've had something better and healthier that cost less.  Really nice tea costs maybe $1 for two grams (you might use double that to brew a couple large cups), with quite decent alternatives for a fraction of that, so although the premise is that they are paying for convenience the value just isn't there (per my preference, of course; value is a relative thing).

On to what the Tie Kuan Yin was like

Hard to describe what separates a good tea from a mediocre one or a great tea, or at least to capture that in a summary.  Reviews tend to talk about tastes, flavors, and then drift into feel of the tea and finish, maybe qi if someone is so inclined (feel in a much different sense--the outcome, the effect on you).  This tea was good, not the best Tie Kuan Yin I've had, but a better-than-average version, better than one might ever find in a grocery store, even in Asia (better to not test that too much, really, try one or two and then take my word for it).

The taste was light and sweet, with lots of floral aspects (not my strong suit, separating out which flowers teas taste like).  Early on in getting into tea one tea-friend said that she thought sweetness and floral components marked better Tie Kuan Yin, and less sweetness and flavors more towards sweet corn predominated in mid-level versions.  Allowing for lots of natural variation by product, growing region, production, etc. that seems reasonable, based on what I've tried.

This tea was interesting for having a light, sweet component that inclined slightly towards citrus, tasting nothing like an orange juice, but more about that impression you get when you squeeze a peel and the oil sprays in the air, a refreshing sweet feel that's not exactly a taste.

The body was also a bit thick and smooth, with a lingering aftertaste.  Versions that are better yet take that to amazing extremes, so that your mouth is experiencing unusual feelings and taste that doesn't diminish much at all after drinking the tea, lingering for longer than makes sense.  It was nice to get some of the effect though.

One might note I haven't said much about what the tea really is; a Thai-grown tea, or brought in from China?  That I don't know.  I'd guess that it was actually Chinese--Thai teas tend to pick up a distinctive range of flavor profiles--and I think Anthony said it was Chinese, but that may be wrong, what do I know.  This leads back to one of the points Nicole made in those suggestions:  someone considering selling tea should know as much as possible about their potential products, tea in general, and especially what they plan to sell.

Is there any chance it wasn't Tie Kuan Yin, maybe a cultivar from Taiwan I'm not familiar with (like some of these), or something else entirely?  Sure.  I've tried a good bit of Tie Kuan Yin but none for awhile, and given that teas aren't always what they are sold as maybe some of it wasn't.  Another concern relates to the possible use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, with "trusted" sources less likely to do so (the reasoning), but in a sense that just adjusts the leap of faith a bit.

It was a nice surprise to try a nice tea like this from such an unlikely source.  The others were decent versions of teas that are normal here, something I'd probably have appreciated a lot more if I hadn't already been drinking more Thai teas than normal this year.  I'm more onto Wuyi Yanchas now, and interesting black teas when I run across them, but lighter oolongs are staples of my tea habit.  One Ruan Zhi green tea was also nice, very bright in flavor, light and sweet, with traces of spice notes typical for that tea, but it really seemed a style in between what I've tried of Thai green teas and oolongs.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Thai hill-tribe black tea, another unique find

Another Thai tea unlike any I've ever tried!  I just posted about a novel Thai oolong my aunt bought in Chiang Mai, and she also picked up a unique black tea there, again supposedly of local "hill-tribe" origins.  The style is similar to a lot of Chinese black teas:  soft (no astringency), and fruity, not exactly my favorite style but a nice tea.  It was odd the packaging doesn't identify anything, but then for locally grown and processed tea that would make sense.

a bit of stick, but not always so bad  that, per last post


The appearance is a little unusual, not a standard form, with relatively large, dark oxidized leaves, but not as long and twisted as Chinese teas tend to be.  The flavor is familiar, sweet, heavy on fruit flavor, mostly in the range of peach / apricot, maybe even a touch of cocoa.  I've tried a number of different Chinese black teas that seemed similar, one of them being this Golden Monkey I reviewed (along with two other teas; this blog can be a bit random like that).  Note that it's clearly not the same type of tea, since that type is marked by using buds in combination with small leaves, and this isn't that.

It's a bit difficult to get past that one strong primary taste element to say a lot more about it.  The sweetness carries over as an aftertaste (although "finish" sounds better), similar to how star anise works.  Beyond that the rest of the taste and feel is fine, nothing unpleasant.  There is a bit of earthiness as underlying taste, strange as it sounds a little like coffee.  The flavor is very "clean" and pleasant, so in spite of it not tasting much like toffee, cinnamon, leather, and wood I like it.

Ordinarily natural sweetness in a tea is a good thing, but to me some Chinese black teas can come across as a little too sweet, which is why this style isn't my favorite.  Of course this isn't really a Chinese tea; it's from Thailand.  I'll talk a bit further through what it might be.

brewed leaves; looks like a black tea

More questions than answers:

Not sure if anyone else had the same impression related to my last blog post, about a Thai oolong and Malawai white tea, but I find that once one gets past the first few sentences of what a tea is like more questions than answers come up.  From that post:

-how was it possible that the Thai oolong leaves were so mixed in oxidation levels?

-what is the normal range of oxidation level for a peony / Bai Mu Dan style white tea related to the other types, green and oolong?

-was that even a typical peony?  It seemed a bit different than others I've tried, mostly in a good way, a bit better.  Of course the leaves were bigger (the original ones; the picture didn't really show that well), and the tea was all leaves, not small leaves and buds, and the final brewed liquid was on the red side, not matching the brewed liquid shown by the vendor.  But then maybe the tea appearance related to hot-storage-aging issues in Bangkok, which might not necessarily have all been negative changes, if some did occur.

-how does the processing step for rolling / bruising leaves affect the taste of the tea, versus a more simple processing for white tea?  Of course some of this question is answered just by tasting different teas, but it can be all but impossible to separate out all the factors that lead to aspects of a final product.

I could go on.  One question that comes to mind related to this review is about the cultivar type of the particular tea in question, and if that's the main factor that makes it taste like a number of different Chinese black teas I've tried.  Or is it more related to processing?  I asked an online tea-friend, and I'll get back to answers about that from him.

Jin Xuan as oolong, green, and black tea:

As background, I have tried local Thai tea made from one plant type into a number of different teas (Jin Xuan).  I've also tried Ruan Zhi made into both oolong tea (the normal product and processing), and as a green tea, but don't remember having it prepared as black tea.  Of course I've not verified the same exact leaves were processed as different types, so it doesn't work as that type of controlled experiment, just as a bit of input.

It's interesting how some the character of the tea stays the same while other aspects change.  Some of the basic flavor profile isn't different, even though the style does shift that a good bit, of course towards more vegetal for green tea, oxidized / earthy / "tastes like tea" for black tea.  It's also clear enough why the cultivar is well suited for oolong, or it could be instead that this is the processing type that is the most familiar or skillfully practiced here; hard to be sure.

Of course the tea isn't particularly sweet across the entire range of three different types from the same plant type (maybe just a little, not like a better Tie Kuan Yin can be), or at least the the countless examples I've had weren't, so that aspect didn't vary so much.  It made for a mild black tea, so one could assume plant type relates to astringency level, but then really growing conditions or processing could as easily be main factors as well.  I'm not exactly pinning this down, right?

I'm wondering if it's even possible for the black tea I tried to be Jin Xuan, and at a guess it's not, it's just too different, even giving variance related to processing.

Random research:

I couldn't get far with saying anything about this tea, what it really is, so I'll say some random things, and point to research that might only vaguely relate.  Maybe it doesn't matter anyway; it's a rare local black tea I'll likely never see again, only to be appreciated cup by cup.  Or maybe that can be extended; possibly best to not over-think tea in general, to just enjoy it, be all Zen-like.

seems to prefer oolongs

 I'm curious if that one particular taste element (sweetness, and related aftertaste / finish) comes from the cultivar more, or from the particular processing, or if I've made a mistake in assuming one of these needs to be the clear primary cause.

It doesn't solve anything but here is an interesting reference on how black tea is made, written by a Chinese tea vendor, TeaVivre.  Their description of their Golden Monkey tea doesn't clarify if the taste I'm remembering relates to that type in general, or more to that version.  But then I already said appearance alone separates the types, and no amount of internet page researching is really going to shed that much light on cultivar versus processing causality.  This Teapedia general reference on black tea has a lot of interesting information in it, but it helps a lot to be familiar with these tea types first to know what it is saying (what the regions are, what the teas are like), which kind of defeats some of the point.

An expert input:

Tea expert means a range of different things these days.  It would be great to meet an old Chinese sage-like ancient-heritage master, but in place of that my online contact / tea friend Michael Coffey can say interesting things about tea off the top of his head (see teageek.net), like why that tea might be so sweet:

Sweetness typically comes from amino acids, but not always.  Amino acids are influenced by a number of factors--for example, the cultivar might naturally produce more than other cultivars, or environmental conditions might be just right for the plant to produce more than usual, or (in my opinion possibly the most likely) a combination--the ideal environmental conditions for that cultivar to produce more.  And that's before we get into processing.  

Simple, right; the answer is usually that the answer isn't simple.  As far as what this cultivar might be, he confirmed both general plant types are grown here (see more about var. Assamica research in this post, and semi-wild tea plants, with most other Thailand-related posts already about Taiwan-originated var. Sinensis types).

So really as one tries lots of different teas from different places made in different ways the patterns that cause different characteristics would emerge, much as it all ever seems to become clear.  The most important thing is to love the experience along the way, even though I can also enjoy over-thinking things.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Thai hill-tribe oolong and Satemwa Estate Malawai white peony

The quest for a more interesting Thai tea panned out in this mid-roasted hill-tribe grown Thai oolong.  I've tried a lot of Thai oolongs from a lot of sources and they generally range from not impressive to pretty good, but almost never really bad or exceptional.  This tea was a gift from my wife's aunt, and since I've had really mixed results from buying random teas in the past I didn't expect much, but this tea was surprisingly nice.

I couldn't really place the tea related to style, and as chance had it I just found the last of an African white tea to compare it to (Satemwa Estate Malawai Shire Highlands Peony, to be specific).  More on that in a later section.

translated:  health benefits of  tea

I've given or thrown away a few exceptions on the low end of Thai teas, but on the positive side very few ever match the best teas I've tried from Taiwan, of course without the diversity found within the range of Chinese teas.  This "oriental beauty" style Thai tea did, but as they say the exception proves the rule.  This oolong I'm reviewing is a really interesting tea, unique amongst others I've tried, and I liked it quite a bit. 

It wasn't exactly a mystery tea; it has packaging description of what it is, but it's all in Thai, and most of that translates to marketing.  It's attributed as hill-tribe produced but information like the cultivar type isn't on the package, so I only have "Thai oolong" to go on, and even then it's clearly not a conventional style oolong.

The tea looks a little like darker-roasted twisted leaf-oolongs I love, except not as consistently shaped, with more random presentation.  The roast / oxidation level also looks to be a bit inconsistent, some leaves darker, others lighter, with more sticks included than is typical.  The smell is a bit different than any tea I've tried, with a nice sweet malty character, but also vegetal in an unusual way, a bit like dried oak leaves.

interesting; varying oxidation level

I tried the tea prepared lots of different ways, with vastly different results by varying brewing method and conditions.  In general the sweetness and malty nature was pleasant, with a just a little of the roasted toffee typical of darker roasted oolongs.  There is a pronounced wood component, and hints of cherry and stone fruit, a good bit of sweetness, even a trace of sun-dried tomato depending on how I brewed it, and mixed with an unusual vegetal taste component related to the dried tree leaf scent. 

Brewing the tea gongfu style with a gaiwan allowed for varying brewing times and resulting flavor profile, but it wasn't easy to optimize the most positive elements.  It actually seemed to do a bit better brewed Western style with a good bit cooler water, allowing the nice maltiness really to shine through as a primary flavor element.  As I experimented with preparing it with cooler water it kept producing better results, with much cleaner flavors, until finally I was brewing it down in the white or green tea water temperature range.

I ended up with mixed feelings about the tea.  It seemed like there might have been potential for a truly great tea hindered by inconsistent processing.  Or maybe that was completely wrong, and the processing really did make the most of an unconventional leaf, maybe unfamiliar related to plant type or growing conditions.  I loved the novelty of the tea, unlike any other I'd tried, with some interesting positive aspects.  The tea kept getting better, or seemed to, as I adjusted brewing, and the unexpected flavoring became familiar.  I'll probably never cross paths with this tea again but I'd definitely buy it if I did.

There were so many sticks included I ended up separating it a bit myself, reminding me of doing that with another more conventional lightly oxidized Jin Xuan Thai oolong once before.  That tea also had an unshaped dried leaf appearance, but somehow it ended up tasting a lot like the rolled-ball oolongs that one always sees in Thailand.  I've always wondered how the sticks affect the tastes, so after separating some in this tea I tried an infusion of just them.

Brewed tea branches review

I brewed them essentially Western-style, based on adding a relatively small amount of sticks to water at boiling point, infused for about 5 minutes (in a gaiwan, but Western style--odd).  The taste was--woody, I suppose with a bit of spice, along the line of cinnamon, although not as clearly that particular spice as in some types of darker oolongs.  Kind of what I might have expected, but I always wondered how positive that would be, if it could contribute in a positive way to the leaves and final brewed tea, or if it was just scrap diminishing it.  The taste wasn't really bad, not astringent, not off. 

As with the tea the level of roast showed through, giving it a bit of malty character, just not in the exact same taste range as the tea leaves.  I probably wouldn't make it a habit to drink tea from twigs, and this probably wouldn't help the other tea leaves as much as throw the flavors off a little, but it wasn't bad.  I suppose I could even say it was better than a good number of teas I've had made from leaves, and maybe would seem even better once adjusted to the unusual taste range, as I had been going through with the oolong leaves version.

Satemwa Estate Malawai Shire Highlands Peony

beautiful tea, originally much better with lots of large leaves

As luck had it I just found the last of a Satemwa Estate Malawai Shire Highlands (African) white tea to try and compare this one to, a tea I had bought through the now-closed Tea Journeyman online shop.  I thought surely I'd written up the tea in a blog review but I hadn't got to that, busy back at that time just back from visiting the States. 

practical spiritual guidance, of a sort

I liked the tea so much I gave most of it to a local monk, something I sort of regretted since I didn't get to drink it, but given that context I needed to share one of my best teas, not something I don't really like.  Per my wife I'm not supposed to be sharing opened tea packages with him but it's hard to think through buying more than one package, and clearly impossible to part with really interesting teas I've not yet tried.

oolong left, white tea right (both a bit red, really)

I've just compared the two teas in tasting them together, and it the Thai oolong seems potentially less like an oolong for the review.  The Satemwa tea is a good bit better tea, pleasant and soft with lots of complexity, and great flavors, but in spite of not sharing flavor profile other elements of the character is quite similar. 

This white tea has great natural sweetness, different fruit elements, and subtle underlying tones in common with better black teas, but without comparable astringency.  It has a great feel to it, and nice finish.  There is an unusual earthy element that's really nice but subtle and hard to identify, maybe close to that rich sweet oxidized element in apple cider.

In reading up on this tea I read two separate reviews of teas that seem to be the same, by the Tea for Me blog and Sororitea Sisters blog (interesting to me to consider what others think of the same teas, even if direct reference to that is a bit unconventional).  Note that the vendor site lists several white / peony teas, so these could be reviews of related similar products that are not necessarily identical, and the variations in the pictures would support that. 

The Satemwa Estate producer site doesn't sell tea, but it does describe these and other offerings (amazing looking black teas--one way or another I'll be trying some of those), and lists vendors that do sell them.  By all accounts it's a unique tea.  It was a shame I just had the one sample I had set aside left over, and there's a good chance that even as good as it was a half-year of storage over the Thai hot season hadn't helped it.


In researching their teas I also ran across an unusual separate version made not of tea leaves but only the "sticks" of the tea, Satemwa White Antlers, (vendor reference to those here), the first I've heard of such a thing.  This was kind of an unusual synchronicity, given I'd just included a review of the sorted sticks of this Thai oolong in the draft of this review. 

It almost seems a stretch, doesn't it, that I brewed tea sticks for the first time, then first heard about a tea-stick tea days later?  But it happened.  The more unusual part is that I found a bit of tea by the same producer that I'd essentially lost track of at the same time, leading to this research and comparison tasting.  I never tried that tea, the "Antlers," but here is a typically comprehensive review by Kevin Craig (Tea Journeyman blog).

So why put the two blog reviews together here (three, counting the part about the sticks)?  It's interesting to think through how relative oxidation level works for different tea types, along with how other processing steps change the final tea.  I guess what started the line of thought, other than stumbling across the second tea at the same time, was that this oolong is not conventional related to either lighter or darker roasted oolong styles I've tried, and doesn't match mid-level oxidized teas either.  The two teas were quite common in body and feel, even though the flavor profile differed by a good bit.

The following chart serves as a refresher related to processing by type (a high level overview of steps):


Since processing for white teas doesn't add a step to stop the oxidation process, as shown in the other "fixed" steps, some variation of steaming, roasting, or frying the teas, they wouldn't be as low in oxidation as a green tea.  Comparing the brewed teas shows how the level of oxidation seemed roughly similar, at least based on brewed appearance, with the white tea more consistently mid-level oxidized, and the oolong leaves a bit inconsistent, some greener, some darker:

Thai oolong left, Satemwa white tea right

In conclusion regarding the first Thai oolong, I can't say it wasn't really a roasted oolong prepared in the conventional way, but the interesting character makes me wonder.  I'm not familiar enough with tea processing to know how or why the oxidation level varied as it did.  It suffered a little in comparison with the complex and fruity Satemwa Estate white tea, but I still like it more and more as I keep drinking it, and I'm looking forward to trying more teas of different types from both areas.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Traditional Thai tea at the Bridge Cafe and Art Space in Bangkok

It tastes like Thai tea. I'm not sure what that's coming from or how to describe it. This one wasn't from a powder, as they sometimes are.  The server in the gallery brewed it from well chopped loose tea in an espresso machine, so it was a real frothed iced latte. I would expect a little astringency, even with milk and sugar, but it has none. And I'm also not sure why it's orange.  The tea was served iced, of course; I've never heard of anyone drinking a hot version.
Maybe the distinctive taste is in my mind, assumed from the color, but I don't think so.  It should be some herb but it's nothing I can identify.  I think the powdered versions would usually be a lot stronger and sweeter, and the Thai tea bag versions more typical of black tea (the kind brewed in a strainer that looks like a small version of a weather sock), with astringency showing through milk and sugar no matter how sweet it was.

first floor, from the second floor

Seems I should be able to say something.  It was good.  If that taste is from an extra herb it's subtle. The Bridge art gallery in Sathorn (Bangkok) that I had the tea in is nice; lots of space here.  The current artwork is abstract, by a local Thai artist, a younger woman, but with a gallery show resume posted about her work on the one wall, so not new to creating art.  I guess I liked it, the art, not really one of my things though.  Tea is, hence this blog.
They also serve a tea-bag version of tea from England, Clipper brand.  It's likely a little better than what grocery stores are stocking here, on par with the tea in better hotels, but then I'd have to try it to know.  Eventually I should give them some loose tea to get them thinking along that line.  It's really too cool a place for tea-bag tea; even Thai oolong would fall short.

About the gallery


art!  Kanjana Chonsiri's SHINE, until 4 Sep 2015 (so you missed it)

The gallery covers a number of different levels, separate floors, so lots of space.  This artist had around twenty pieces displayed to fill the space, a number of them very large, but the gallery could hold a lot of art.  The space is strange, broken into small, odd-shaped rooms on different levels, with a bar of some sort on the roof-top that was closed.  I liked it. 
There was unfamiliar, interesting music playing on a good sound system while I was in there, perhaps not that unusual a thing, but great for a nice background vibe.  The woman working there was really nice, one of the owners.  She was shy about being photographed for this post, so her input was limited to talking about the gallery, and tea, and the local landmark nearby (her English was quite good).

Sathorn Unique "ghost tower"

It's not really part of the gallery but there is a large abandoned tower right beside it, almost standing over it.  Bangkok is strange for having a lot of abandoned, mostly finished buildings around  It looks like the whole structure was completed in that one, as if they were so close to finishing it, but apparently bankruptcy laws aren't set up effectively for recovering that progress in the cases when the money just runs out. 
There are different blogs and article posts claiming you can enter and climb the stairs inside to get a really unique look at this part of the city but they're inconsistent about how that works, if it's really open to the public or if some version of paying off a security guard is involved.  Here is a newspaper article with background on the tower, with a video section included, and also a blog post version about going up in it, a bit more colorful.  It doesn't sound safe to visit; surely part of the appeal.


Thai tea research

The references to the traditional version of this type of tea aren't consistent.  Almost all claim the color relates to food coloring, with limited speculation about a historical version that might have somehow been orange without it.  There's no consensus for ingredients but most claim either Ceylon or Assam tea is typically used, along with condensed milk and a good bit of sugar, and maybe other herbs.  Orange blossom and crushed tamarind seeds seem to be potential traditional additions, and other versions reference possibly adding anise, cloves, or cardamom (so masala chai without the ginger, essentially). 
Here is one "how-to" article describing that, and how to make the tea, and a blog post that is essentially the same content (but you never know, maybe a slight variation would help fine-tune how it turns out).
I couldn't say if that tea really did taste a little like orange blossom or tamarind seed; as far as I know I've never tried either.  They sound great; I'll keep my eyes open for them.  It looked a good bit like a normal CTC / machine processed tea, maybe just a little more like a rough ground sawdust than tea usually does, so there could've been something else in it.  Or maybe just more sticks than I'm used to, which wouldn't always be so negative, sort of a hojicha twist to a Thai tea.
The related Wikipedia article includes another interesting reference to tea type used:
However, due to Ceylon tea's high price, a locally grown landrace (traditional or semi-wild) version of Assam known as Bai Miang (ใบเมี่ยง)[1] with added food coloring is commonly used. Other ingredients may include added orange blossom water, star anise, crushed tamarind seed or red and yellow food coloring, and sometimes other spices as well.
The source cited by that article fills in a bit more about that tea type, along with explaining the standard distinction between the two general plant types, which I've left out here (the other is Chinese tea, camellia sinensis var. sinensis, versus var. assamica, more commonly grown in India):
The Assam variety is also called landrace, wild, or Miang tea.  Leaves of the Assam tea are larger than those of the Chinese variety.  Assam can also grow readily in the shade provided by forest.
So again the new part is that this tea plant might somehow be "semi-wild."  That would be great, to go hiking in the jungle and pick some, as with blackberries back in the States, or strawberry guava on ridgeline hikes in Hawaii (which are amazing, by the way).  That article goes on to talk about all the types of teas produced in Thailand, and cite import and export quantities, consumption per capita, etc., which I guess could be of interest to some.  It claims Thais consume .09 kilograms of tea per person per year (published in 2009; maybe they've stepped that up), which is not very much tea, just shy of 100 grams.  I drink that in a couple weeks.
One curious part of that passage talks about making "Miang," clearly referring to a food dish made from tea, not a drink.  One gets used to words being used in different ways here, not so different than in English speaking countries, but it makes more sense when you don't notice it happening.
Miang has a tart to sour taste.  Miang  is mainly consumed in the north of Thailand.  It is eaten as a snack during work for alertness.
Sounds like lahpet, pickled tea from Myanmar, right?  Must be related, but no need to dwell on that since this part is all just a tangent.
I'm happy to have had a positive experience with traditional Thai tea, and the gallery part was really nice.  Maybe on to bubble tea next time.