Sunday, December 27, 2015

an extreme take on a Christmas tea blend

A few different things have reminded me of tea blends lately.  One is seeing the Twinnings Christmas blend; interesting because it contains clove, not interesting enough to actually buy because it's commercial, mass produced tea, and it's not as if I've ever tried a Twinnings tea that was so amazing that I wanted to go buy some.  But to be fair their loose Earl Grey is not so bad.

vanilla pod (bean, if you rather)

One other reminder was a decent flavored Thai green tea (coconut).  Before trying that I was already considering how the local, Assamica based Thai black teas might work in blends.

This related to trying some teas and also to researching a semi-mythical original version of Thai iced tea awhile back, that orange bubble-tea-like version, which supposedly stemmed from a real, respectable tea.  It was intriguing for using crushed tamarind seeds and orange blossoms in a blend, versus the mix of artificial flavors now used (in powdered tea mixes--just nasty).

I also recently tried an Indonesian black tea that turned out to be a commercial, machine made, essentially ground black tea.  It was so astringent that I  couldn't drink even a diluted infusion of it without milk and sugar, although it was decent with those added.  I almost considered reviewing that tea with the milk and sugar but I've not been drinking enough others to use as a baseline, and those additions really do mute the original flavors.  Eventually I probably will do such a review, just because it's a crazy idea.

It was kind of shame about that tea because I really wanted to get more of a feel for how the volcanic soil affected the taste of Indonesian teas.  Not that I was going to really be able to separate the inputs well, but it seemed possible the black tea would fill that in a bit beyond trying a green and white tea (both recently reviewed here).  So the tea brought blending to mind.  Usually I only make masala chai from teas designated as ingredients, but this was a chance to broaden that.

So I researched a bit and made my own Christmas blend.  I just ran across a Tea for Me Please post about an interesting version I didn't see prior to making this blend, but I'll mention it here anyway.  That Twinnings tea, which may or may not be the same product I've been seeing in grocery stores here, was described as follows:

The Twinings Christmas blend this year is Winter Spice.  It is a black Assam tea from North-East India, expertly blended with warming spice flavours, safflowers and orange peel for a delicious festive treat.

No specific mention of clove, but descriptions I've seen before only cited clove and orange peel.  One of the recipes that turned up in a blog post looked like just what I wanted to go for:

Vietnamese black; really too good a tea for blending

200g orange pekoe tea
2 oranges, zest only
4 tbsp pink peppercorns
4 tbsp cloves
5 cinnamon quills, broken up into pieces
1 vanilla pod, halved lengthwise and finely sliced

200 grams is a good bit of tea; my plan was to make it in steps, to put some ingredients together and adjust across different tries, to make it batch by batch instead.  This would still require making dried fruit separately, per something like their method:

1. Peel thick strips of orange zest and then tear them into small pieces and arrange them on a baking tray lined with baking paper. Bake for 20 minutes at 100ºC until dry. Cool.

2. Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Store tea in a jar/airtight container for at least a week so that the flavours are allowed to develop.

those two black teas used for this batch

The orange peel was a given, but I decided to add some cherry as well since we had it on hand, from a fruit basket gift.  I was going to add apple but it turned out to be a nectarine (from that basket), so I added a good bit of dried nectarine peel and fruit.  As wet as those were I dried it at around 120 C (250 F) for more like a half an hour.  The orange peel didn't need that long to be ready, just the other two did.

I actually had vanilla pods on hand from a trip to Java and Bali (spices are inexpensive in Indonesia, it seems), so I did add that, along with the clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, and a dash of salt.  I think the salt really did help make it work, but of course getting that level right is critical; it wouldn't take much to ruin it.

drying peels and some thin sliced fruit

The mixed storage wasn't going to work, because of the plan to make it by batch.  For the first go I didn't brew it per a normal tea infusion process, just steeping, but rather made it like a masala chai, boiled instead, mixed with milk that went through the boiling process as well.  The basic blend would work for either, it was just going to be easier to do that way, and including milk and sugar would smooth out potentially overdoing spicing elements.  And plus I felt like making it that way; my intuition said I should.

I had backed off the clove enough that part wouldn't have mattered, spicing intensity, and since I did sweeten it with a little each of sugar and honey the only remaining hurdle was achieving balance.

And the final tea was--AMAZING!  It was like a Christmas themed mixed fruit tart, condensed into the form of a masala chai.  I've did an awful lot of baking but I've never experienced fruit in that way before.  In a way it was cheating because I didn't brew that much at one go, one very large coffee mug worth, essentially two cups of tea, and adding a pod of vanilla to almost any slightly sweet drink in that proportion would come out ok.

wouldn't try it; I'm raising a tea snob

The overall balance was pretty good, although I could've ramped up the clove a little more.  Even though I had boiled it for about 10 minutes I was wondering if the fruit had more to give, so I added more tea and a dash of clove to it, and it made one more large mug worth by way of a normal steep that was just a bit diminished in intensity.

Making this as a tea blend to be infused normally, not boiled, and probably without milk or sugar, would require a good bit of adjustment.  I'm not sure the effect would be the same prepared as an unsweetened tea without milk, and I really don't plan on drinking enough fruit blends to go through all that preference curve again in a different form.  But I'll try it and see how it goes.

Taking it the next step

I tried to imagine how to really improve this beyond making adjustments, and it seems something related to the role peppercorns would play might be it.  Of course I've been through all that with masala chai (maybe not a given, that I've experimented with variations of those, but some of you know what I mean), and pepper sort of works but it's not for me.  So what else?  Ginger jumps out as the obvious alternative, but I also think better not for this.  It would have to take over, even a trace of it, and the spice role is different.  This is going to sound crazy but I did have an idea.

Dried chili pepper.  You might be thinking of some bright red spice-jar powder version that would drag the profile just a little towards Tabasco, so that just a dash would seem close enough to using peppercorns, but that's not at all what I mean.  I'm talking about warm, rich, sweet, smooth roasted chilis, a completely different thing.  Think mole sauce; more like that.  The following is a reminder of what that even is, but if none of this part is familiar you might try getting into some decent Southwestern food, since a really, really good enchilada is a transcendent experience.

Mole poblano is the best known of all mole varieties and has been ranked as number one of "typical" Mexican dishes.[14] It has also been called the "national dish" of Mexico...

Mole poblano contains about 20 ingredients, including chili peppers and chocolate, which works to counteract the heat of the chili peppers,[14] but the chocolate does not dominate. It helps give the sauce its dark color, but this is also provided by the mulato peppers.

Here is a description of a dried chili type I mean, from the same reference page this picture is from:

Ancho: The name means "wide chile" in Spanish, a fitting moniker for this wide-shouldered, nearly black pepper, made from ripe poblano peppers. They have a high yield of flesh to skin, which makes them a workhorse in sauces. Anchos are mild with a rich, dark cherry/raisin sweetness.

But I don't have that, or easy access to it, so I'll probably shelve that idea for years, if I ever even get to it.  I did cook a lot with a range of dried peppers quite some time ago, and these do have great scope, and are easy to use.  You can just about soak the chilis in hot water for awhile then blend up the mix, and you're done, you just use that.  Some versions would bring up issues of excessive heat, and then you'd be on to considering not using seeds, or figuring out tricks like cooking with sugar to drop that level, but all that is the fun part.

The trick is finding them.  Going to a farmer's market around Phoenix or Albuquerque would turn up lots of options, and better grocery stores all over the US should have something, but beyond that it might take some doing.  Call me crazy but a smoked version might work really well, aside from sourcing that seeming even less likely.  Some peppers seem to have a bit of natural smokey element, but even claiming that is going outside my current range a good bit.  If one only had the right lapsang souchong on hand that tea could bring the element to the table instead.  Even I'm not out there far enough to put that last smokey Silver Needle I reviewed in a fruit and spice blend, which probably makes for a good place to leave off.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Comparing Indonesian and Thai Silver Needle White Teas

Finally on to tasting one of the more interesting teas I picked up in Indonesia, a silver needle white tea from Wonosari plantation, in Eastern Java.  Two other posts go into some more background on there and those teas, but the short version is that it's a government associated, Dutch influenced tea plantation.  At least true per what little I've read or heard; without their own reference material, or a website, or more direct communication from them that's not confirmed.

The other tea is a Thailand originated Lana Silver Needle tea from Monsoon teas, a tea shop in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with this sample provided by them.  Per usual the combined tasting format was to help identify subtle character differences better, which stand out better in comparison.

Monsoon Thai silver needle left, Wonosari Indonesian right


The teas look quite different.  The Indonesian silver needle looks like I would expect, silver-white individual buds, while the Thai Lana silver needle tea is a light greenish color.  I've read critiques of white teas described as not being true white teas based on using different processing, with different outcomes, but that is not familiar enough for me to address it here, and I didn't research it further for this post.

The Wonosari Indonesian tea had an unusual smoke scent, with a pleasant rich sweetness beyond that.  The Thai tea smelled sweet as well, but with a vegetal scent beyond that, in between the light, subtle-earth scent of white tea and a profile more common to green tea.

Wonosari tea; nice and silver

The first taste of the Indonesian tea was essentially just smoke.  Actually the first few infusions were like that, overwhelmed by it.  After two or three I was able to try and taste past it, and the tea seemed to have a full, rich feel to it, and good sweetness, with the typical subtle earthy / light floral flavors of a white tea, towards chrysanthemom or chamomile, but less explicitly floral.

The smoke kind of worked, after the first infusions, when it had diminished, it just seemed a really odd idea to be drinking a smoked white tea.  As many infusions passed it faded out and more rich, sweet flavors came to the fore; a really nice white tea.  One of the distinctions between good white teas and better ones has seemed to be the feel of the tea, and this one is full and smooth.

packaging; a filler picture

So the comparison idea didn't work out so well, given that one aspect, smoke, colored the effect of that tea so much.

The Thai silver needle tea was nice, but different than I expected.  As with the scent some flavor elements resembled green tea.  The vegetal character didn't resemble grass, or spinach or peppers, none of that typical range, but it was close to green hay.  If that's not familiar, it is a pleasant, relatively neutral, soft vegetal element.  If you happen to walk through a field of growing hay give it a smell; and try pulling out the top green flower top from the bottom of the stalk, and taste the soft, rich part growing inside; quite tasty.

The tea itself had none of the astringency common to green tea, not even a start in the feel of the body.  It was even a bit thin, really, not a problem for me since I don't value white teas for the feel as much as that seems more crucial to some other types, presented differently in those.  It wouldn't have stood out so much but the Indonesian tea seemed much fuller in body in comparison, and a bit sweeter.

Monsoon left, Wonosari right

Both teas brewed lots of infusions, somewhat consistently, beyond the smoke element dropping out for the Wonosari tea.  The feel of the teas changed a good bit as I increased brewing times to compensate 8 or 9 infusions in, along with the effect and presentation of the flavor profile.  The Thai tea picked up a bit of astringency comparable to that in a black tea, just a much lighter version.  The Wonosari tea really didn't; it stayed quite smooth and went to a fuller feel rather than changing in that way.  All this reminds me of an interesting aside, which I'll add after this part.

As for final conclusions, it seemed without that smoke the Wonosari tea may well have been a really nice example of a silver needle tea.  It still worked well for me, and even the smoke was interesting, especially experiencing it dropping out.  It combined with the other elements in different ways as it faded, while the other aspects didn't change as much.  I could imagine other people taking that differently, more negatively.  It's odd to smoke a white tea, and it would seem likely that wasn't intentional.  Or maybe it was.

The Thai tea was nice.  Again a tea purist might have been put off by the deviation from normal silver needle character, in terms of flavor profile, and the thinner feel of the tea, but to me it was still quite nice, maybe even interesting for being different.

Aside about varying brewing time and tea strength:

In the past I've noted how white tea brewing suggestions tend to fall into two completely different sets (more on general brewing guidelines in this post), with one standard preparation method calling for relatively long brewing times (based on Western style brewing), of 4 to 5 minutes.  The other approach prepares the tea very lightly, more conventional for a gongfu approach, although really someone could brew tea Western-style very lightly and gongfu-style as strong tea, using longer times.

It's odd how the different proportion of tea to water comes into play, so that a white tea brewed as a strong version might infuse for 4 to 5 minutes for Western-style brewing, and still under a minute for gongfu style.  For a lighter version infusing Western-style for 2 minutes might do, and gongfu style only 20 seconds, or one could drink a very wispy version flash-infused, in contact with the water only as long as it takes to pour it in and then back out.

same teas, brewed stronger

It all depends on preference, doesn't it?  That's true, but it can be unsatisfying just leaving it at that.  I recently read a great related comment on a tea group thread that added lots of detail, what the difference in effect would be (not just that the tea would be lighter and stronger, I mean).  The discussion was in the The Great World Tea Group, kind of newer and smaller as Facebook tea groups go, but I guess typical of those.  To me they are either somewhat exclusively about pu'er or not; this one not (or some about Darjeeling only, to be fair).

Kirk O'Neil, the group owner, raised this question:

I don't know how people can drink any tea that's too light; it confuses me.  Sometimes I see gongfu brewed tea brewed lightly.  I like strong brewed teas except for most strong brewed young shou (ripe) puerh.  Is weak brewed tea being not as enjoyable as strong brewed tea a bad thing?  Is it a good thing I enjoy strong brewed tea?

To be honest I'd love to see more discussion of tea in a tea group anywhere, so I'm impressed that Kirk would share his own preference to initiate a discussion.  It's all too easy for the comments to drift towards "you are wrong," even in cases clearly related to preference, like this one.  I help moderate a different FB tea group, and I post different random things there, but even I don't usually address questions like that outside this blog content.

Christmas!  but nothing to do with tea

One response was more interesting and insightful than the others, by Thomas Smith, someone I have talked about tea a bit with online, and he's got a fairly developed take on things:

It is a matter of preference per focus. Lighter intensity and body allows a much wider range of flavor elements to be perceived, though they may be too light to be appreciable to some. Steeping longer will truncate flavor range to just a handful of easily identified characteristics, reduce number of total infusions that may be yielded, reduce spread of flavor deviations between infusions, hamper expression of sweetness and aromas, and promote potential astringency. The payoff is heavier impact of the relatively smaller set of flavors, increased viscosity, and greater consistency or reliability of cup character. 

Those who enjoy Assam, Yunnan, and Fujian red teas and many quick adopters of Shú Pǔ'ěr and similar accelerated-fermentation dark teas may gravitate to longer steep times both out of familiarity and from these teas not really offering much on the light approach compared to the texture payoff in protracted infusions.

Next level deeper analysis, right?  Does it match your experience?  I've noted in this blog that lighter tea brewing can actually allow for separating flavor elements better, so the main point I completely agree with.  For a white tea this variation in infusion time and strength seems even more pronounced, emphasizing completely different elements, not just shifting how they come across.

Wonosari plantation; outside Malang, East Java

Other factors also relate, including a learning curve for preference (or preference curve, if one would rather), related to appreciating different aspects of a tea.  Somehow it seems like preferring stronger tea first and gravitating towards lighter is natural, but of course it's not that simple either.

There is an underlying assumption that one would want to optimize brewing to suit their own preferences, but I don't necessarily end up there.  I experiment with brewing a lot just to see what it changes, sometimes even infusion to infusion.  That contradicts the appreciation of the "flavor deviations between infusions," as Thomas put it, at the core of what many tea drinkers regard as an essential part of the experience.

This would be a good place for a summary wrap-up, maybe something like "to each their own."  As I see it the beauty of the experience of tea is that it does keep going, new experiences, changing understanding, varying preferences, with change and diversity a big part of the appeal.  Of course, to each their own; others might figure out what they like and tend to stick with that.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas! And about a coconut flavored tea, while I'm at it

elves!  ok, just ordinary small humans

Merry Christmas!  I never write holiday theme blog posts, and I never drink flavored teas (except for a little jasmine, osmanthus, or Earl Grey, and then there's masala chai, but you know what I mean).  Monsoon teas, a tea shop in Chiang Mai, Thailand, sent me a sample of a coconut green tea so it seemed a good time to break form.  I wrote about another plain green tea version of theirs here, and mentioned they seem to specialize in unusual Thai teas, likely more closely related to native plant types, more traditional locally sourced tea, etc.

First, about Christmas in Bangkok.  I worked, so that part is different.  It was less of a loss because my son is at school too, so we did presents opening early and will get back to what it's supposed to be about later, or just skip some of that.  It doesn't seem like Christmas when it's 80+ degrees out (nearly 30; I've switched this to F given the context), and it can be hard to keep up the same level of traditional celebration here.

The part about being in a Buddhist country changes things too.  They put trees up, and decorate the malls, but otherwise they don't know what to make of Christmas.  I once went to a work New Year's Eve party on Christmas day and no one acknowledged it was that--kind of strange.

How does this relate to tea?  Maybe it never will completely tie back in, but I've meant to say something about the trade-offs of living in a different country at some point, outside the US.  One positive aspect is that I'm in a tea producing country, and a half dozen others are a bus or train ride away, although we usually fly places.  We travel a lot, and it's relatively inexpensive, more so than going to the next state over back in the states.

the important part covered, the good spirit

The list of problems and adjustments related to living in a foreign country is so long it would sound like whining if I even started in.  Giving up the normal celebration of every single holiday, and not offering that same form of my own past experience to my kids, is just the start.  So trade-offs, along with other positive aspects; but then, one would expect that.  Of course there's much more I could say but I'll switch this back over to tea-blog mode instead.

About the earlier Monsoon teas I tried, it had occurred to me that they would work well for blending related to how the earthiness came across, even though they were much better than the average Thai teas I've tried here.  Part of considering that was a review of a traditional Thai iced tea post, where it came to light that such teas were originally based on somewhat native Assamica type plants.  Modern versions are artificially flavored, powdered tea, a bit nasty, but the original based on real tea, crushed tamarind seeds, and orange blossoms sounded interesting, and the version I actually tried was ok (not really sure what was in that though).

Tea review

The coconut flavored tea was the first flavored tea I've drank this year, aside from the other types I mentioned (jasmine, etc.).  It is a loose tea, nothing like tea bags, so I was wondering if it could really work.  The tea tasted almost exactly like a Mounds bar, just without cocoa / chocolate, which did work for me.  The flavors were very clean and natural, with a little softer green tea flavor, but as much toasted coconut taste as that.  One would have to at least consider pairing the tea with chocolate, then it would be like actually eating the Mounds bar, but with half the experience in a hot beverage form.

I talked to Kenneth, the shop owner, about the tea, curious about what the flavor was.  He didn't get into processing details but it is from an essential oil made from toasted coconut, something they make or have made for them (or so it seemed).  I was wondering how it could taste as real as it does, without some strange aftertaste or aspect, and that's it; it is real, just not as if there is actually shaved coconut in with the leaves.  Getting the balance right would be the trick to it, but the coconut taste level was about where it should be, and somehow didn't vary much across infusions, so all good there.

It's easy to stop there and not drift into how a tea matches or doesn't match my personal preference.  One might even say it's a tea blogger convention to do that when it does overlap well, but not when it doesn't, to keep things positive.  I won't be switching over to flavored teas anytime soon but this is easily the best flavored tea I've ever tried.  I suppose that's not saying much, since setting aside those few exceptions the others were tea bags, and I've definitely not drank even one such tea this year, and few enough across my lifetime.  It's not negative aspects of this tea that would keep me from drinking more of it, and others like it, but the vast expanse of other new teas to try, each with different character based just on plain loose tea.

an Ibis hotel in Malang, Java, Indonesia (some Christmas trappings there too)

I had a nice conversation with Kenneth about other aspects of the local industry, about tea production and drinking, sustainability.  I'd think most people that are more into tea would have given all this some thought, and it's nice to hear about real steps being taken on the other side, a producer picking teas to sell based on that.  On the other side of that, it's sort of a leap of faith to believe anything any vendor says about it.

I trust what he was saying, but it really helps that it won't matter so much if it wasn't accurate.  If that tea came from a recently strip-cut rain forest farm--which it didn't--it would be sad, but I'd never learn of that truth.  If that taste was from some chemical mix--which it isn't--it wouldn't be as healthy, and it would be unlikely for it to taste so natural, but my health wouldn't suffer, probably even if I drank a few hundred grams of it a year.  A bit cynical?  I suppose.

Even for the most transparent vendors, people that offer lots more details--and business names do come to mind--it's hard to really know.  Some vendors one step up the sourcing chain could dig lots deeper into growing conditions than a consumer looking at a web page, and they might feel convinced, justifiably, but the whole landscape would need to shift before it would seem easier to really separate at the lower level, for the person buying the tea.  So what do we do?  Some enthusiasts and vendors would say to vote with your purchasing dollars (or baht, or rupiah), but some of the time the grounds for doing that could just be marketing spin, so it's right back to the issue of separating fact from fiction.  I'll keep it in mind, and write more about it as there is more to say.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Wonosari plantation Indonesian green tea

An interesting tea from the Wonosari tea plantation; a nice one to follow-up the initial travel-blog themed post about visiting Indonesia recently.   The appearance is unusual,  a dull light green, presented as folded bundles of tea.  Somehow the color seemed a little flat, if that makes sense.

The initial taste was vegetal, towards grassy, but more in the range of spinach and green peppers.  I was reminded of a recent experience with a Thai green tea thinking that someone else more into green teas might really like the tea.

There was a little mustiness to the flavor as well.  That also reminded me of that Thai tea. I had initially thought it related to freshness but per the owner of Monsoon teas it was more an attribute of the plant type,  a local "wild" Assamica strain.  And of course it could also relate to terroir, and processing could come into play.

About freshness, the "use-by" date on the package gave the tea another two years, really too long for a green tea even if it had been made in the past month, but without knowing how long they thought it could last I wouldn't know that origin date (without asking about all that directly--a bit of gap there on my part).  Since they were cutting tea then (we saw someone doing it), and since Northern Hemisphere seasons don't mean much on the equator (8 degrees South of it, if memory serves), it's hard to say what they were doing for harvest seasons.

about freshness, not sure how long shelf-life is

The next infusion was a lot cleaner in flavor.  I'm out of the habit of doing rinses but it occurred to me that it might work to experiment with that for this tea; essentially throw out the first short infusion to get better results in general.  I have a cold so the aspects were coming through across a compromised palate but I'll give description a go.  I thought to try it a second time, and did the next day, buy my sense of taste seemed completely gone at that point, so I think my cold is getting worse.  If I thought it would change things I'd have held off on posting this but I'm sure a few more details would emerge, but doubt the general impression or review would.

The vegetal aspects toned down a good bit after the first infusion.  More mineral elements started coming to the fore.  I had wondered how volcanic soil would affect this tea (there were volcanoes everywhere;  clearly we were standing on an older one), and it seemed likely that was part of background for that aspect.  It wasn't the same rock effect found in Wuyi Yancha,  a little closer to Vietnamese teas, but not that either, richer and earthier and less dry, not so much like shale or granite.  I'd like to think it was like a black sand beach smell,  but it's been awhile since I've been to one, or to that active volcano in Hawaii where brand-new rock is all around.

Other nice aspects joined in, a fruitiness.  It was hard to separate particular fruit, maybe towards blueberry,  or a light sweet tropical counterpart.  I have tried the herb that Fruit Loops cereal tastes so much like that it almost seems to be based on it, pandan; maybe like that.  And this seems a good place for a tangent.

To begin with, Fruit Loops isn't based on pandan, it's just a coincidence that the mix of artificial and natural flavors end up sort of close to there (and it turns out that the different colored loops all taste the same--crazy; I could swear Toucan Sam said otherwise).  Pandan is an herb described as one used in the same way vanilla is in some references (like Wikipedia; that's digging deep into the research).  Don't take my word for it that pandan tastes like Fruit Loops, though (just better); here is a Michelin-starred restaurant dish review that makes the same comparison:

A delicate, paper-thin slice of steamed sponge cake is soaked in pandan syrup and topped with pandan ice cream, milk gelato, and candied pistachios. The long green leaves of the Southeast Asian pandan plant lend an aromatic, fruity flavor that is startlingly reminiscent of Fruit Loops (of all things), making the addition of the milk gelato even better—like cereal milk.

tea plantation workers; friendly as everyone in general was

Back to it then; astringency in that tea was limited.  All in all it was a nice tea, good complexity,  interesting range of developing flavors from one single tea.  It might have been lots better when fresh, or maybe that was relatively fresh.  Although I literally bought the tea from the people that made it (and who did plantation tours) we didn't talk much about the tea, at all.

Mt. Bromo!  so cool it's hard to really take it in

I'd stayed awake almost the whole night before to climb a local, very active volcano (ok, really the next one over; we went up Mt. Penanjakan to see Mt. Bromo), so it was hard enough to focus in and not leave tea behind.  They also sold a good range of tea bag tea, which I did leave behind.

It's a good start for Indonesian teas but I wasn't under the impression I found the best of what they had to offer.  Subsequent discussion indicates there are probably more and likely enough better plantations in the West and center of Java island, and also on other islands (Sumatra in particular, as I recall, but I'll get back with a bit more research in another post).  I think by messing around a little with that tea I tried you could get a little more out of it, find the complexity it had to offer, and I will do just that, later, without a cold.  I also bought black tea and a white tea from them, and green and white from another shop, and some commercial teas, so I'll get back about more of those along with more to say about Indonesian tea in general.

More on Indonesia:

kind of normal looking residential areas

That was already the natural stopping point for that post; I gave a rough idea what the tea was like, and admitted to not knowing that much about it given that I was right there at the source.  There are some other teas to review, so I'll have ample space for going on about whatever, with more plantation research the one part I've promised, but I don't feel like I've really communicated much of what Indonesia was really like.  Somehow it deserves that, since it was different than I expected, nicer in a lot of ways.

It didn't really feel as much like a developing nation to me as most of the rest of South East Asia.  Some of that might be that the rough edges are just familiar now (I've been here for 8 years), so I'm just more comfortable with seeing shacks next to modern hotels or malls, or however that goes.  But I don't think that was it.

2nd class train, a great option to have

It was less Western too, so malls and convenience stores weren't quite as predominant as in Thailand, but at the same time the rough edges weren't quite as rough.  According to whatever development indexes the UN and such use it probably wasn't past the middle of the curve but they'd went their own way, and it wasn't a country rushing from a traditional agricultural society to Western infrastructure and shopping, with tourism and manufacturing as a base.  Ok, maybe tourism was the foundation in Bali, but not so much in Java.

As an example, we took both an ordinary class and a more premium class train on Java, both of which were nearly free compared to anything I've researched from Amtrak (which I never took; always too much cheaper and faster to fly).  Any train travel except high-speed options might seem a bit second-rate, to some, but I love trains, all types of them.  In Thailand and Vietnam they go the next step and offer sleeper cars, like a tiny budget hotel room but with a WW II era miliatry ship feel to it, but it was still great to have multiple, inexpensive options like those in Indonesia.

I'd guess it had to do with a long history of being a Dutch colony, the kind of thing Thailand is proud to not have in their own background.  Places like Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam don't really play up that background, at least in most places, although it's there in old architecture in some, related to the French influence.  To me the culture was also their own; without much concern about where they stand or how their development was going, if anything just a bit inquisitive related to still being somewhat isolated (again, not Bali, but that's essentially a resort island).  My wife didn't care for hearing the Islamic temples' call to prayer during normal sleeping hours but to me it was great how religion and culture weren't really an issue.  Until we tried to buy beer; odd you'd just expect that to be available everywhere, outside a place like Saudi Arabia, but not so much there.

The people were great too, but that starts a drift into me just being attached to the trip and those experiences.  People are ok everywhere, according my own limited experience, but Indonesia was really worth a look.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Review of two Shui Xian (Wuyi Yancha) from my favorite tea source

lots of  competition details, just in Chinese

Cindy Chen shared some tea samples including two Shui Xian, so I wanted to update how those were.  I wrote a review post about a sample earlier in the year, with some background on the type, so this is really about trying different versions of her teas.  I don't have a website contact for her, but she can be reached on Facebook, just like everyone else.

First, I wanted to mention some news related to that, from awhile back now but not too long ago.  In a competition involving most of the local tea growers, so many that it was a bit of an honor to make the top 50, the initial cut-off, they won first place for Rou Gui and second place for Shui Xian.  Which is unbelievable.

Cindy!  And people judging teas, one set of many

I'd love to research more about how such competitions work, since there was some process whereby lots of people helped judge the hundreds of samples in a tournament style fashion, which would then be narrowed down to a separate judging process for the final places.

But since I've been getting drawn into too many tangents lately I'll just add this picture and move on to talking about some teas.

Shui Xian (2012)

a beautiful tea

Good tea!  The main weakness is that I've been spoiled by Wuyi Yancha that really match my preference lately, some great quality teas, including some from others from Cindy and a better than average local source, so it would be a challenge to just get to that level.

The smell is earthy, a bit sweet, woody, even with a bit of peat.  It's complex enough that someone with a good sense of smell and imagination could just keep going on about the trace aroma elements.

the normal color range; nothing thin about such a tea

The tea brewed to be very nice,  perhaps just a little less complex than the scent hinted at.  Rich earthy flavors stood out, dark wood, a bit of leather, sweetness, subtle so hard to specify if more tied to molasses or brown sugar, which of course are related.  The flavors were rich and smooth and clear.

I missed that strong aromatic component from that last comparison tasting session between a very good Rou Gui (from Cindy) and a Bei Dou (specific Da Hong Pao type, from Jip Eu, that Chinatown shop here).  But then from what I've read those two teas were supposed to exhibit pronounced versions of that aspect.

The level of roast came across as darker medium, not much in the way of char effect but with a profile shifted towards rich earthier flavors.  One might speculate that the char taste element could have been stronger three years ago but how it would transition over that time is not something I can judge just yet.

like tasting tea with monkeys loose in the house

So the tea is good, with the main weakness being comparison.  With nice clean, earthy flavors and consistent brewing across infusions it is a very nice tea.  I'd mentioned before about how tasting the same tea in two different environments, one noisier and one quieter, resulted in a more detailed review in the case when I could focus better, and for this tasting session two little people were absolutely tearing the house apart.

I'd probably have added a few more details about the tea given a half hour of peace and quiet to sort through it, but I'm not sure my general impression would change; definitely an above average tea, perhaps not quite a match for some of the best examples.

Shui Xian (2013)

this is the Shui Xian you were looking for; really, it is

This is the kind of tea Wuyi Yancha lovers hope to run across.   Even the smell gives it away, rich and earthy, sweet, but also with a bit of chocolate and malt.  There are the typical earthy elements, like other Wuyi Yancha, but not quite as far to aromatics and cinnamon as Rou Gui.

Earthy tones blend together in one continuous, nice flavor profile, heaviest on dark woods, and sweet, with a bit of cocoa.  A pleasant and complex aromatic component combines rich mineral elements, volcanic rock, floral tones, and fresh ink.

Descriptive enough, but the experience couldn't come across, unless it's already a familiar one.  Of course it's a soft tea, no astringency in the same sense as many, but with a nice full feel.  Cindy once mentioned that after a few years of experience drinking these teas your mouth could tell you which are really good, and my mouth agrees in regards to this tea.

The flavor stays consistent and very positive across infusions.  In lower quality examples of such teas the sweeter and more aromatic components will fade faster, leaving earthy elements stand out, but this profile stays quite similar after brewing a lot of tea, just thinning a little after many infusions.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Monsoon Teas Lana Green (Thai green tea)

Odd I'd go right back to Thai tea reviews after picking up so many from Indonesia, but I'll mention another more local tea I just tried first.  It'll help me get back into the swing of drinking green tea since it's been awhile.

This Monsoon Lana green tea was an interesting version of a green tea.  There's a bit about Monsoon on a website here (mostly contact information), and more in a Facebook page here, but since it's more a physical shop than an online store not so much for product details in either place.  Of course they probably would sell you whatever teas they have without you actually going to Chiang Mai, I'd expect.  I might also mention that they provided this sample to me for no cost, which is much appreciated.

I'm probably skipping some cool back-story, since per discussion with the owner the black tea versions were from relatively native plant types.  I did a review post of one such nice Monsoon black tea here, and more write up about regional cultivars here, including some background on those "semi-wild" local var. Assamica plant types, so it's all there, except the tie-in to what this tea is.  But really, what's in a name, or DNA / RNA; it's all about what's in the cup.

To be honest green tea is not really my favorite general type.  I like darker roasted oolongs best, then black teas next, maybe more unusual types like Oriental Beauty or Bai Mu Dan / White Peony after that (both of which aren't so unusual to some people, but you might know what I mean, and if not you aren't missing much).  But I get around to drinking a lot of different kinds of teas, from lots of different places, and interesting versions like this one are easier to appreciate.

The tea appearance was unusual; a bit dark as some green teas go, with large, twisted leaves, mostly whole, some broken a bit.  The smell was unique too; a warm, earthy, sweet smell, with lots of fruit, mineral and earth elements combining, with raisin or berry as the most interesting sweeter components, and a primary scent along the lines of toasted sesame.  Dried seaweed products can smell a lot like that, not as much like seaweed as you'd expect.  I had a really interesting and somewhat related dried river plant snack from Laos once, but I digress.

The initial infusion taste didn't match the smell so closely, with more pronounced mineral elements coming out, and a bit of grassiness, even earthiness, with that part related to the sesame.  The tea didn't seem exactly like a Vietnamese green tea but some of these aspects reminded me of those, flavor components that match the way some types of rocks smell, maybe slate or limestone.  These were combined together with earthier aspects and a limited degree of sweetness, in a way such that it all mixed together.

The general effect wasn't bad, just a bit muddled, and not as pleasant as the smell had promised.  The tea feel wasn't hindered by too much astringency as some green teas can be, but brewing with slightly cooler water may have offset the potential for that.  I couldn't help but consider how someone that really loved green tea would react to this one, versus how much I liked it.  The tea was fine, just not a favorite style, and the interesting combination of aspects wasn't completely winning me over, although the tea was nice.

It improved in later infusions.  To clarify, I was brewing it Western-style, but using a higher proportion of tea to water versus how package or general instructions for Western-style brewing usually go, with slightly shorter infusion times.  This really relates to a brewing methodology I prefer for some types, not some general standard approach, not intended as an improvement of that which would apply broadly to others.  Some tea types would brew three infusions at good strength using such parameters, like a black tea; others types would tend to go further, brew more times and more tea, as lighter oolongs tend to.  This tea really hung in there; a good sign for tea quality.

The flavor mix seemed to clean up a bit in subsequent infusions and move from pronounced mineral flavors to softer earthier tones, with more of the initially promised sweeter fruit flavors coming out.  The vegetal, grassy background remained, maybe diminishing a bit along the way as well.

The complexity, the number of different flavor components, made separating these as a list of individual flavors a bit tricky.  Some tea reviewers have no problems with that; they can easily list out 8 or 9 different flavor components, regardless of whether these are standard tastes one would recognize from foods (eg. spinach) or if they are not related to that at all (eg. flower types, rocks, types of wood, toasted peat moss, etc.).  In my own case it helps to drink a tea more than once to sort it out; obvious distinctions stand out right away, but finer ones are easier to pick up with a bit more exposure.  I tried this twice and it all was a bit clearer the second go.

So in the end after the first infusion more elements of berry or raisin came through, just very faint, along with a vegetal profile normal for green teas, just not to the extent that it clearly tasted grassy (ok, maybe a little; one subtle background taste element was pretty much "cut-lawn" too, grassy in a literal sense), and not so much like spinach or peppers, etc.  I liked the tea but never moved completely past the "do I like this?" reaction, if that makes sense, given the tea isn't a general style that I prefer.  Green teas in general don't usually exhibit the rich, full feel that other types can, and the finish can be a bit limited, but it's really more about a flavor profile, for me.  Those particular aspects didn't stand out as flaws in this case, it wasn't "thin," but also not as strengths.

I think someone that loves green teas would love it, especially if that potential for a slightly rough astringency aspect is something they didn't love, because this was a soft tea compared to others with that flavor range (much as a tea this unique has a common flavor range; I mean in general).  Being on the unique side tends to help, for me.

a silly tea lover

In Vietnam, per my understanding, people tend to love the astringency that is natural to their green teas (usually prepared in a dark-green "fish-hook" leaf style), so much so that they brew with hot water without limiting infusion times, letting it go from a little structured and edgy all the way to bitter.  But then preference is a funny thing.

Comparing it to wine, it's as if one person likes the full feel and effect of astringency in a Cab-Merlot blend, and someone else likes a lot more edge, exhibited differently in an earthy and rough-edged French Cabernet compared to that in a brighter and sweeter but slightly sharp Chianti.  This tea might be more like a Northwestern American Pinot; it had some interesting things going on but all that wasn't really about astringency, there was just a little to give it some feel.  Of course good versions of that type of wine are awesome, quite a compliment it seems, but I'm having trouble thinking of a plainer example that still works for the astringency parallel.  The tea was nice, though; it will be interesting to see how a couple of Indonesian green teas compare.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Tea in Indonesia; one vacation's worth of experiences

Time to shift to travel-blog mode; I just spent a long week in Indonesia.  Tea was a part of it.  I visited a plantation there, and bought 8 or 9 versions of teas over the week.  Only one type and two products, white teas, versions of silver needle, seemed to be sold as higher end "specialty tea," but I've not tried any of it, so we'll see how it shakes out.  This post is about what I saw and did, so I'll check back in with the more standard reviews.

Nusa Dua beach in Bali; nice enough

Indonesia:  background

Mt. Bromo, Java, doing what volcanoes do

girl scout / unofficial translator in Yogjakarta

Indonesia is awesome.  We saw ancient temples, beaches, and volcanoes, two active ones.  All that spanned two islands, Java and Bali.  It was interesting to change environment and cultures so much within one country like that.  For example, Islam is the main religion in Java, but Hinduism is in Bali.  Bali is really developed for tourism but Java is so quiet and at the opposite extreme that cheerful little kids say hello just to practice their English.

I really won't do justice to all that we experienced but I should mention that the people were great, one of the best parts.  Taxi drivers and tour salesman looking for business in Kuta were an exception--that could get old--but in general it was wonderful that nearly everyone was so genuine and kind.  I live in Thailand (Bangkok), so I'm used to a very friendly culture here, but the people seemed just a little warmer and more sincere.  I've ran across really helpful people throughout Asia, even where cultural stereotyping runs in the opposite direction, so to me people are generally decent everywhere, it's more about how most come across.

It made for an odd contrast hearing news about people being suspicious of Muslims in general (and of course that related terrorism is a real thing), when I was talking to people on an hourly basis that were so consistently some of the nicest people I've ever met.

One person commented online that they might seem one way on the surface and be too repressed to show their real internal conflict over societal pressures.  I'll just add my opinion on that:  no, they're all good, a lot less conflicted and wound up than the American stereotypical persona goes.  Americans are fine too, by the way, you've just got to get used to a wide range of how they express themselves, and the odd idea mixed in, but being one it seems normal to me, most of it.

maybe this guy should do another kind of work

One guy we met wasn't very nice.  One Hindu temple on Bali ran a light version of a tour-guide scam, where they required a "guide" go with you to describe restrictions.  We visited a lot of temples there; only that one did that (Pura Besakih; their main temple complex, so odd it worked out like that).  He was the only person that wasn't pleasant or helpful; odd he was working in the role of guide then.

As they say, the exception proves the rule.  Traveling for a week in any country and running across only one person that's not nice is not bad.  Taxi pricing varied a lot, which people might take different ways, but that's just routine for SE Asian travel, and easy to work around.

Tampak Siring Holy Spring Water Temple, Bali

In general the feel of the places we went was also great, incredible sights and natural phenomena, temples with an amazing vibe, each so different from the last.  That wasn't as pronounced in the more urban or crowded places but even those were nice.

But I'm getting way off the subject of tea.

they really do this, carry things around that way

Online research

In the past I've done extensive online research prior to some trips, to try and pin down where I'd run across tea, shops and such.  This time I didn't.  But I still wanted to mention how one might go about that, and what worked or didn't work in this case, from the limited research I did do.

Steepster shop listings, Adagio Tea Map:  only "tea people / enthusiasts" would be familiar with these website references, which would list out lots of options for countries like the US or UK.  For Asian countries they're not really helpful.  One might still check, but they're not likely to add much.

Google / Google Maps:  lots more to go on through Google, and with Maps the great part is letting you know how close places are to where you are standing.  The problem:  not everything gets listed, because small companies aren't necessarily caught up on internet marketing, or at least aren't in English, so only a search in the native language might find them.  The plantation I visited outside Malang, Java did turn up on Maps; the franchise-chain shop in a high-end mall in Kuta, Bali did not.  Or I think it is actually a dot on this map, but the normal extra clicks identifying if they carry more than bubble-tea didn't work out, and Google had their hours completely wrong.

Online networking:  interesting, and potentially helpful, if one has the time for such things.  This approach did turn up the only tea shop that sold me tea, talking about what I was looking for in a Facebook group related to Indonesia.  I tried the same on an expat forum group related to Indonesia, in this discussion, and some comments seemed promising, but nothing worked out there.  If you can ask a tea blogger living in a foreign country what to look for there that can short-cut a lot of all that, but it didn't work to find one in this case.

Ijen volcano, East Java.  miners gather sulfur, but those are tourists (it was a national holiday that day)

Visiting a tea plantation in Java (Wonosari, outside Malang)

My first visit to a tea plantation!  Oddly it's the second time I've visited where tea was being grown, and that first time I talked to the farmer and bought tea, and walked around coffee and tea plants.  That was in Laos, in the Bolaven plateau, but that was more a small farm than a plantation.  The country I live in now, Thailand, produces tea, and I may have seen it in passing in the Chiang Rai area on earlier visits, but I wasn't really into tea back then, there last maybe six years ago.

Bromo again; cool!

The write-up about the plantation is going to seem a bit thin, because the visit was short due to not sleeping the night before, related to visiting a volcano starting at 1 AM.  Mt. Bromo was about to erupt (more on that here).  It was putting out lots of smoke and ash, and recent earthquakes had caused the national park to close the mountain, so we saw it from the next mountain over, Penanjakan.

That was probably from a safe distance, but then it seems that about once a decade a volcano does something really unpredictable in Indonesia and people die that had really seemed safe, so I'm happy to have not been one of them.  A guide told us there are currently 19 active volcanoes on Java, and in researching earthquake activity there were more than 500 in the Indonesian region in the past year, so it's just what they live with.  

A recent earthquake summary as of now:

35 earthquakes in the past 7 days
80 earthquakes in the past month
594 earthquakes in the past year

from November; nothing to worry about, most are underwater, and somehow tsunami's are still rare


The Wonosari plantation is just a bit under an hour's drive north of Malang.  It's really not that far away, but traffic is a bit much in that area, especially for it being so rural.  Upon entering we saw rows of well-tended plants, surrounded by some type of local tree (not sure what the point of that was), along with people harvesting some of the tea.  

I really should be able to fill in details about the role of those trees, or harvest timing or processing, or how they make the teas, and so on, but can't.  We essentially didn't sleep the night before, and it was around lunch time, so picking up some tea and moving on seemed enough.  If my wife were a lot more into tea, or at least drank it, I'd have probably drank a liter of tea and went on with a tour, but she doesn't and I didn't.

Wonosari plantation:  idyllic

I bought a black, green, and white (silver needle type), but it was a busy week and I didn't set aside an extra half hour to do a tasting.  The more relaxed and quiet I am the more I seem to pick up from a tea, so ran-ragged on a busy vacation schedule my impression might have been limited anyway.  

They also produced and sold a few types of tea-bag tea there, which I didn't buy.  If I run across more details prior to writing about the tea I'll add it in another post.  I might mention it was set up like a very informal resort and residence area, nothing like the horrors one keeps hearing about Indian tea plantations lately--and looked like the kind of place I'd want to live in.  That general travel reference site I mentioned--the plantation itself doesn't have a website--said:

Facilities: swimming pool, cottages, jogging tracks area, camping grounds, and many other.

an easy choice

It might sound like I stopped drinking tea for a week on the trip but it wasn't like that, although I did cut back.  Once in awhile I would make tea I'd brought with me at the hotel, I was just a bit busy to do that daily.  They served tea with breakfasts at the hotels, just nothing really interesting.  

At the Prambanan temple near Yogjakarta we waited out a short rain shower at an entry room where they served a surprisingly good jasmine black tea, probably with potential to be even nicer with more careful brewing, but that was an exception.  Indonesians drink and produce and tea (#6 on this list by production amount, ahead of both Vietnam and Japan per this reference), but coffee is more prevalent.

Tea shop in Kuta, Bali (Rollas, in Beachwalk mall)

Rollas tea and coffee shop, chain-store

The other place I bought tea was in Rollas tea shop in Kuta, Bali, with main company website here.  Kuta is a resort area that's sort of an urban hell as Bali resort areas go, like Waikiki, Honolulu, but with a bit less charm.  Plenty of build-up, right?  

I couldn't find any mention of anyone growing tea in Bali; they do coffee, and this tea supposedly comes from Eastern Java, possibly from the same plantation I visited (Wonosari).  I recall reading a reference that said otherwise, but I'll get back with more research on that.


open-air, familiar from Hawaii

I've not tried that tea either, yet, so what else to say.  A coffee lover could find 1000 versions of coffee in Bali but at best one would find tea from the next island over, the one we'd just come from.  Of course there are always exceptions, just not easy to turn those up there.

Any normal tea-lover would have just bought some tea and also stopped for a cup, given the nice cafe atmosphere.  That mall, Beachwalk, reminded me of one in Honolulu, Ala Moana.  I was busy though, torn between swimming and Christmas shopping, and mall environments are a little too familiar from living in Bangkok, so I didn't do that.

Commercial tea

tea in a Malang grocery store

Grocery store tea, written up in a blog post, WTH?  After I try what I bought I'll have more opinion if this is the rare exception where that sourcing really does work, or if this is more low-grade tea-leaf abomination.  I bought a commercial tea in Cambodia nearly three years ago that was quite reasonable, and cost next to nothing, but I've had more bad experiences with that sort of tea than good ones since.  

It's a gamble.  Being an optimist I'm hopeful.  This also relates to how one appreciates novelty in teas, or teas across a range of types and quality levels.  If someone spends thousands of dollars a year on the best teas sourced from the best producers around the world chances are slim that a grocery store tea from anywhere is going to cut it.  If someone is so open they can actually appreciate tea-bag teas of different types then this would probably work out, maybe just not for every example I bought.  I tend to save the tea-bag teas for emergencies.  I brewed one tea bag in a hotel there, with the results being what you'd expect.

surfing Lego Santa, Bali

For reference about the pricing of teas in this earlier picture currently one US dollar exchanges for about 13,800 rupiah, so that tea is nearly free. 

Value for those teas I bought is good, but of course that relates to not just cost but actually liking the tea, so maybe too early to say that.  The three teas I bought small amounts of cost around $2, as I recall.  For all of it.  If I knew anyone that really loved teas as I do where I live I'd have splurged for the extra $2 and included them in the gamble, but I'm sort of on my own with the tea thing here.  

cool statue, wearing a sarong


The trip wasn't about tea, but then I suppose that was already clear enough.  Looking through those pictures there are 100 others that stand out as a good representation of great aspects of Indonesia.  As amazing as the temples, volcanoes, and beaches were the people were just as great.  

As far as recommendations for visiting, it might have been better to start in Bali, and not spend much time in Kuta (the urban resort area), then go to Java after.  I wasn't concerned or even curious about what a Muslim-based culture would be like since we've been to Malaysia a couple times, and the answer may not be what you'd expect:  just like anywhere else.  Women tend to wear head covers (hijab; more on what that is here), beer isn't sold in as many places; otherwise no different, aside from how places naturally vary.

One nice girl we sat by on the train in Eastern Java decided for herself not to wear a hijab two years prior, even though she is Muslim.  No need to extrapolate much from that, except to say that pre-conceptions about their culture and religious observations may not hold up.

As for doing more with tea there, it depends on what you are into.  We could have skipped all those other sights and headed straight for plantations, but it would seem odd to miss so many once-in-a-lifetime sights to focus in on tea.  But then I live in Thailand now, so it's kind of local, and I can just go back.