Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Christmas tea blend follow-up, and Indonesian jasmine black tea

I wrote about a homemade Christmas tea blend recently, and mentioned I was going to try variations.  It's not as if I've really broken new ground by doing that but I'll mention the update.

the dried fruits part

It had seemed the tea, a fruit and spices blend with black tea, would work best made as a masala chai is made, boiled versus steeped, with milk and sugar, so that's how I tried it.  It did work really well.  I've tried it twice since then prepared to be infused instead, as a normal tea blend.

Indonesian jasmine black tea

One part of that adjustment was varying the black tea used to make it.  One other Indonesian commercial tea I'd bought was a jasmine black tea, which turned out to be quite nice.  The appearance was a little odd, on the dusty side, with some sticks, and tea presented more as flakes rather than some other conventional way.  Oddly that didn't translate into a bad tea; it was actually mild and well-balanced, with limited astringency, nice clean flavors, some underlying earth and mineral tones, and a good balance of light jasmine flavor.

It couldn't pass for a higher end specialty tea, based on appearance, but it was much better than it looked, quite good for teas of that type, not so far off other teas I've tried that look much better and cost much more.  In fact it may have been the best value in a tea I've ever bought; something like 50 grams of tea for around a dollar, for one of the best teas I ever bought in a grocery store.  A black tea I found in Cambodia was pretty good once, and a hojicha in Japan, but you get the idea; grocery store teas are universally mediocre or even bad, and this one was ok.

Indonesian black tea label

I mixed that black tea with the other black tea I'd bought from the Wonosari plantation (another Indonesian tea I bought on that trip).  It also wasn't so bad, but was quite astringent, so that for me to drink that tea without milk and sugar added would be unthinkable.  This was really going to be the challenge for this blend, if I could adjust the ingredients for it to work as a normal steeped tea.

I loved the idea of clove mixed with tea, really the main reason I even tried it, and that spice in particular was problematic.  It gave the tea an aromatic, spicy earthiness but it seemed like adding enough of it to actually taste it would require at least sugar mixed in to counter the "spicy" spice aspect, something related to pepper or ginger, the heat.  Someone could drink straight cinnamon brewed as tea without compensating in the same way, or cardamom, or nutmeg, but spicing that comes across as heat is hard to integrate into a standard tea flavor profile not designed for adjustment with sugar or milk.  Why not add sugar and / or milk then?  Kind of a long story to get into that, but there is an image issue related to those, which overlaps with an image issue related to drinking tea blends.

One challenge would be balance.  Making it in a masala chai style took away from that problem; milk and sugar could offset any problems with astringency or spicing, and even smooth over other balance issues between fruit, tea, and spicing.  Another would be getting the fruit to show up, since tea typically brews in around 3 minutes, but a 5 minute steep really isn't long enough to get a fruit peel or dried cherry to give up flavors.

For the first try at an infused version I just backed off the spicing, went a little heavier on the fruit, and tried it out brewed at boiling point for the typical range, around 2 to 3 minutes, prepared with enough extra tea it would brew two or three infusions at that ratio.  I skipped the vanilla because it was too much messing around for preparing a tea with breakfast, cutting a bean / pod open to get to the spice itself.  It was drinkable but not great.  I tried it with sugar; better but not great.  Then with milk and sugar both; much better but still not great.  The fruit really didn't come out nearly as much as in the first version I'd wrote that earlier blog post about, a boiled preparation of a similar tea, but then I'd simmered the dried fruit alone without tea for 5 minutes in that batch to give it a head start.

the earlier version; pre-simmering the fruit and spices

I adjusted the mix a little the next day, backed further off the clove, and added a hint of cardamom along with the nutmeg and cinnamon, but the results weren't so different.  It was more drinkable but still needed sugar and milk to get the flavors balance right.  It seemed possible that I was so accustomed to straight teas, usually a bit subtle, that trying to drink a plain spiced tea wasn't working based on that, even adjusted to be more subtle.  The fruit still wasn't completely there.  It occurred to me one could go with a much reduced ratio of tea to water and use a 5 minute steep to compensate, then add more black tea and go with a second 5 minute steep, and it would show through much better in both infusions.

I've been drinking tisanes with dinner lately, to allow for a version of tea (something like it, at least) in the mid evenings, without caffeine, and steep times can just keep going for those.  When one reads package instructions or blog reviews of tisanes those always cite a 5 minute steep time, longer than for tea, but that's typically for a well shredded or even powdered version of an herb or flower (or whatever it is, a root or spice of some other sort, or mix).

sage!  it's already an "herb tea," just like this

If you make an herb tea / tisane with a plain spice like dried sage or rosemary (which I do; those are two of my favorites) that can make tea based on using 4 minute boiling-point infusions, nearly endless numbers of times, producing a half-dozen cups of tea.  Of course I'm not using anywhere near as limited an amount of herb one would find in a tea bag, and they need to shred that down nearly to a powder for it to brew out in the 5 minutes.  It would be possible to tear up the herbs a bit to speed infusion along (chop them, however that would go), but I don't, which is why I'm using a lot more and then needing to let it brew for much longer to get the "tea" out of it.

So what is the conclusion for this tea, prepared as a more conventional blend?  Per my taste it worked a lot better made in the style of a masala chai, with a lot more infusion time for the fruit, conducted at a simmer.  The real vanilla probably made a big difference, since that gave it a lot of natural sweetness and a creamy feel.  The infusion version may have worked out better with that added back in, but it wouldn't seem likely two 4 minute steeps would pull out most of the flavor of a vanilla pod either (although that might be wrong; I didn't test it).

Although I loved the effect of the clove, and the idea, it would be hard to get it to balance in a tea and herb infusion that didn't rely on sugar and milk to compensate for the peppery spice effect.  Something as simple as ramping up cinnamon by a lot might help with that, but cinnamon wouldn't bring the same smooth, sweet, creamy effect that vanilla did.

spices and some of the teas from Indonesia

I don't plan to do a lot more with tea blending but you never know; something else might come up.  I'll still be keeping an eye out for crushed tamarind seeds and orange blossoms to put that traditional Thai iced tea version together, someday.  And I bought cardamom pods I didn't get around to using yet in Indonesia (the touch I added was ordinary spice-jar version), so although we're coming to the end of the Thai cool season now at some point I'll revisit masala chai.  Given the daily lows are around 80 F / mid-20's C now it might make sense to adjust that to an iced tea version, but somehow it never comes to that, I just drink hot tea when it's hot and humid and then sweat a bit.

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