Saturday, August 25, 2018

Reviewing Thai tea (ChaTraMue brand, one orange version)

not this, but Thai tea Blizzards are even better than the drink

this version, along with a complete breakfast

I've written about making a spiced Thai tea from scratch before but never about drinking the commercial product, at least that I've brewed from loose tea myself.  Here in Thailand that would be a little like reviewing Starbucks coffee, or a McDonald's milkshake; everyone knows what they're like.  Except they seem not to sell McDonald's milkshakes here, so I mean they know back in the States.

There are other commercial versions of Thai tea.  I'm not really trying to explain the range of those here.  All flavored black Thai teas of this type taste a bit similar, so the idea is to describe that, with just a little comment on variations.  This does seem to be the standard producer, Cha Tra Mue, also going by Number One brand instead.

This is the first time I've bought the loose blended Thai tea here, in nearly 11 years of living here.  I do have it in cafes sometimes so it's kind of strange that never seemed like a good idea. I was really into exploring better plain teas, I guess, just setting that aside for an Earl Grey or jasmine black once in awhile, or more recently for trying those tea stuffed mandarin orange peels.

The review part won't be formal or long.  Thai tea tastes like mild black tea with star anise and artificial flavoring added. It's not that far from orange creamsicle.  Beyond that separating out flavor aspects doesn't work well.  Someone asked about it in a group once thinking it was peanut butter tea.  It's not that far off that, in a limited sense, but to me tastes nothing like peanut butter.  The flavor is like a mix of spices but seemingly also based on artificial flavors.  Research cited in that other post indicated that the original version may have been black tea, roasted tamarind seeds, and orange blossoms, and it may taste like that.

In coffee shops it's usually better.  Sometimes they brew them in an espresso machine instead there, as covered in this cafe review post awhile back.  That improvement is probably due to using a good version of a tea mix, plenty of sugar, or maybe sweetened condensed milk, and half and half instead of whole milk.  It works better cold, or even blended with ice, but then you might as well eat ice cream.  I did just eat a lot of Thai tea flavored soft serve when the local Dairy Queen ran that flavor as a special for a month.  I think I put on a little weight from that, maybe an extra 2 kilos / 4 1/2 pounds.  It's probably healthier for me that they discontinued that.  I suggested to the Dairy Queen corporation to run that as a promotion in the US but you can imagine their response; there wasn't one.

Review (a short version)

I've been making this Western style; that would be crazy to make a finely ground black tea Gongfu style.  It's so finely ground that even though I'm using a very fine strainer in a basket-style infuser some tea dust gets through.  It's a nice "For Life" brand version device, with a ceramic lid matching the cup, to hold in the heat and then hold the basket as a saucer.

The trick is getting the balance of sugar and milk right, as much as sorting out proportion and timing.  Whatever the artificial flavoring and coloring is that brews through relatively quickly (or just dissolves), so if you try to make two infusions--which I always do; I just never get to dialing back proportion and going with a single 5+ minute steep--then the flavor changes a lot in the second round.

I can tell this is probably Thai black tea.  It has a distinctive mild earthy taste, not bad or good necessarily, just different.  I bought a bag of it to make blends with however many months ago, and made it a few times to check on black tea with milk again, so it's relatively fresh in my memory.  It's almost time to get that tea back out to make fall or winter blends, even though we really have no fall or winter in this climate.  The rainy season ends and cool season begins around November but it's not all that cool.

Thai CTC tea; very inexpensive

It's hard to be more specific than I was in the intro in reviewing this particular version; the general flavor profile is always what Thai tea is, give or take some limited variation.  I added some star anise to it the last two times I made it to correct for that flavor input being too mild in this brand version (two stars worth seems to work well), and it's pretty good after that adjustment.  It tastes like a very mild black tea, kind of woody, not astringent at all, then like that star anise, and from there like some artificial version of spice.  It's odd that any of that approaches "creamsicle" but it does.

red when brewed, orange with milk added

This style of tea is prepared and sold here mostly as powdered tea.  That's probably not that different than a brewed version.  It's the mix of some limited amount of tea, artificial flavor, and milk and sugar that works, so brewing a subtle and complex version of loose tea doesn't matter much.  Given the quality of black tea typically used that's not even really possible.

It makes you wonder, what tea type would be ideal for this?  I'd think even modest quality Ceylon would work even better, and Assam wouldn't match as well for that maltiness and astringency.  Mostly Ceylon with a little Assam might be good.  But it hardly seems to matter that black Thai tea typically isn't very good on its own.  I think I like it for it not reminding me that much of normal tea.  It's like eating matcha ice cream; not supposed to be like the rest of "tea."  Or like an even more amazing version of hojicha soft serve I've tried.

I don't think it would be possible to duplicate the artificial flavor by using actual spices, but then I never could find roasted tamarind seeds and orange blossoms to try to make that original version.  I can definitely buy tamarind in lots of places, it's just a lot of work to try roasting, shelling, and grinding them.  Making one batch would probably be plenty of work and experimenting with the roasting process could take awhile.

The version I made from scratch was nice, but just as close to masala chai as this.  The flavor profile doesn't exactly seem to include vanilla but that is close enough to part of it.  Mixing that and star anise, the main flavor that stands out, and whatever other herbs would get you most of the way.  I don't think it is possible to completely duplicate the exact taste though, since it's based on artificial flavoring, as the orange coloring is.

You would think Amazon would sell this pre-prepared product but I'm only seeing the tea powder mix or tea bag versions there.

what's in the powdered version of that tea

On meeting people and sharing tea

I recently met an online tea contact who was visiting here, Suzana Syiem of the Tea group / FB page.  I guess this does relate, since we met at a coffee shop at my office building and she had a Thai tea there.

Now that I think of it we didn't talk about that tea.  I bought this can of flavored tea in part to pass on some to her, but it's not as if that didn't serve my interest just as much.  It cost next to nothing, something like $2.50 (what a single prepared drink usually costs), and I've drank it a number of times, since I only shared a good bit with her in one of those multi-layer envelopes that seal.  It would've been very little extra expense to buy two cans instead but lugging that can--like a small coffee can--doesn't match with a short trip / traveling light theme, and the other samples took up some space too.

Tea culture in different places has become an interest I'm pursuing, and she and I have talked about tea in India more online than we got around to that day.  Indians tend to like CTC black tea (commercial mass-produced versions), either with milk and sugar or those plus spices, as masala chai.  She shared some of something else entirely with me though, a high altitude organic black tea from Shillong, a 2018 first flush.  Very cool!  I'll say more about that later.

It was great meeting her.  It's usually nice meeting people you only know online; typically not too strange to connect in that other format.  She and her friend were really nice; it felt like I knew them both already.  Hearing a little about their short visit here was interesting, the ups and downs of navigating an unknown and slightly chaotic city.  For them it felt kind of orderly, it seemed, but there's still a learning curve to work through.

One funny part was comparing notes on politics, trying to see who's country is under worse leadership.  Of course I claimed the US is a clear winner.  Trump might go to jail within the next two years instead of serving out his term, and he's destroying the US as fast as he possibly can (with 40% still buying that MAGA story line; kind of pathetic).  They said that their country is also ran badly, under an anti-corruption theme that's not good enough with management details to do better than the corrupt version did (or only less corrupt, if India is anything like SE Asia).  One comment might've tipped the contest to be the worst in India's favor; the people there support that leadership, the majority, not just a sadly misguided large minority.

I had passed on some tea to her earlier, a good bit, and I've been giving away a lot of tea lately.  Often that's been connected with those tastings, but I share a little at work now and again, and just gave a doctor we visit some.  I just sent some to an online contact in the North of Thailand too, a guy who had ran his own version of an expat forum I was sort of active in before.  That experience showed how such a thing might not always be well received.  I sent this, from Farmerleaf (one of my favorite Yunnan pu'er and Dian Hong vendors), ordered directly from that vendor to him:

That might seem a little odd; even though the expense was limited, why buy tea for someone you don't even know in real life?  Part of it was about pushing that tea evangelist role to an extreme, to check on the outcome, and part about thanking him for contributing an interesting forum to talk in for a number of years.  Most of the expat forum versions here run a bit rough.  His only feedback:  I'm kind of busy these days.  I took that to mean he didn't like the tea but didn't want to put it that way.  I suppose it could mean that he didn't want to admit that Chinese tea is better than British versions, I just don't think so.

I'll surely buy that same set for me too at some point since I don't feel closure related to someone who could appreciate what that tea is drinking it instead.

I never could relate to that other part, about British people feeling a connection to tea that's not from Britain, with the style somehow making it their own.  Traditionally British tea was keemun / qimun (Chinese black tea), Assam (Indian), and Ceylon (Sri Lankan), although I'd imagine more comes from Kenya than any one of those other sources now.  Blending can influence a final tea style, and adding bergamot essential oil in the case of Earl Grey is a change, but it's odd to me that buying tea as loose Assam and Ceylon never really seemed to catch on to the degree commercial blended tea-bag version brands did there.

on that short list

Even though not all the examples of sharing tea made sense making those personal connections has been nice.  There is a good long list of people I've talked to I'd love to meet in person, and for a short list worth that step seems to be running late.

Initially when I used tea to research social media, as a shared subject interest theme, I thought that maybe most people into tea would be more interesting, broad-minded, and generally better people than average.  Maybe it didn't work out that way, but some certainly are.


  1. Proving almost impossible to purchase Thai black tea dust in Indonesia

    1. I'm not sure how to solve that. It's worth checking Lazada I guess, a Thai online sales outlet.