Sunday, September 23, 2007

Dragon Tea House - Mystery "Red" and "Blue"

Somehow September has flown by, and I haven't had a chance to be actively blogging. To follow up on my last post, here are some brief notes on the other two mystery samples provided by Dragon Tea House care of The Half-Dipper.



1st infusion - 8 sec.

Infusion produces a very light yellow liquor. The smell is tobaccoey with a heavy sweetness. The taste is also of reminiscent of tobacco, similar to Russian Caravan tea I've tried. A little too bitter.

2nd infusion- 7 sec.

This infusion was shorter in an attempt to reduce the bitterness. It has a wonderful sweetness, combined with a sour-woody taste that makes me think of oak barrels. We had some in our back yard that were used as big flower pots, and whenever it would rain a sour wine smell would effuse from the wood.

3rd infusion- 20 sec.

Slightly greener liquor at the longer infusion time. The sweetness is still evident, with a nice wine and oak taste.

4th infusion- 25 sec.

It's still going strong, although this infusion is very dry in the mouth. I think this will be my last cup.

I have a very pleasant and energetic tea buzz. This tea was nice. I didn't know a young pu-erh could taste like black Russian Caravan, although this one had more sourness than any black tea.


This tea produces a yellow soup, which turns amber after a few seconds. At longer brewing times the soup is more green.

20 second infusion - All 5 flavors are apparent in this tea: sweet, bitter, sour, pungent, and salty. Usually there can be a few of this apparent in any one tea, but I have never tasted all five!

The tea doesn't have much stamina, petering out after just a couple infusions. The sweetness weans and the bite takes over. Some of the wet leaves of this tea have dark speckles, which can't be good, except in the case of some special teas.

Overall, a merely decent tea. I think next time I will try more tea and shorter brew times to better understand how this tea evolves.

Monday, September 3, 2007

2006/7 Dragon Teahouse - "Green" Shengpu

I am fortunate enough to be included in The Half-Dipper Tea Tasting Event, sponsored by Dragon Tea House. Three "mystery teas" labeled red, blue, and green arrive today by registered mail from Shanghai. The world feels a whole lot smaller as I sign to receive my package, and play my part in the ever-tightening system of international security. I notice a stamp on the envelope indicating a pass through customs, with "tea" in English alongside the Chinese 茶. The translation makes me think of how East/West cultural boundaries are articulating themselves in an era of globalization, especially in light of the concerns about contamination of Chinese imports. Tea never fails to fascinate me in its ability to provide a nexus of meaning and importance in my life.

Dry leaf appearance: Cake appears quite smashed, with a dark beige color and an earthy mushroom smell that is deep like a lion's purr.

I infused about 6 grams of this tea several times at very short (~8s) intervals with boiling hot water, and here's what I found:

The liquor pours out yellow, and browns to a light amber over the next 20 seconds. A jolt is felt from the moment it hits my tongue. The tea, or am I anxious? This bright note mellows into a warming quality, much like mushrooms. I search for words to describe the taste with pen and paper. A sweetness lingers after I swallow it down, and I am reminded to listen to the tea rather than the inquietude of my mind in a search to describe it.

A second infusion results a little too tangy, is 10 seconds too long?

A third 8 second infusion is nice and sweet, with bright notes occasionally jumping out as I listen to the tea talk. I become more aware of my body and posture. I notice that the tea does not leave my mouth dry, as tea often does, but that changes around the 5th infusion. Is this enduring moisture and sweetness what is known as huigan? A 6th infusion, 9 seconds long, is just shy of overbrewed, imparting an astringent tang while the sweet and woody notes still prevail.

Wet leaf appearance: The leaves are much less damaged than the heavily compressed cake made me suspect initially. They are whole and quite large, some almost 3 inches long. Despite their size, they are tender to the touch.

This "green" lion of a tea spoke to me with a demanding yet mellow purr. I am an infant in the pu-erh world, and while I definitely enjoyed it, I suspect this tea brims mediocrity. If I had to guess which of Dragon Tea House's 52 shengpus this is, I would wager their Mengku Rongshi Spring Tip bing or the DaDuGang Women Caravan Spring Arbor cake. Although my opinions here will surely all change as I revisit and spend more time with this tea, I give it a 3 out of 5 as a tea and a 7 out of 10 as an experience. :)

Monday, August 27, 2007

Tea Lore and Legends

I am currently reading "The Chinese Art of Tea" by John Blofeld, and thought I would share some excerpts on the ancient lore that surrounds our beloved plant.

On Tie Kuan Yin (Iron Goddess of Mercy) tea:
"Its name points to its having first been grown in the vicinity of a temple dedicated to Kuan-Yin. It is said that a Mr. Wei, a tea grower resident in Sand County, used to pass this temple on his way home from work and was shocked by its dilapidated condition. He could not afford the cost of repairing it, but used to go in to burn incense on the first and fifteenth of each lunar month, sweep the halls thoroughly and clean the statues. One night Kuan-Yin appeared to him in a dream and said: 'In a cave behind this temple is a treasure that will last you for generations, but be sure to share it generously with your neighbours.'

Next day, though he diligently searched for the treasure, all he found was a tiny tea shoot. Disappointed, he nevertheless planted it in his garden and tended it well so that within two years it had become a shrub which yielded a catty (1 1/3 lb) of tea. Brewing some in a lidded bowl, he noticed that an unusual fragrance filled the room and that the flavour remained pure and strong after several additions of water. With mounting enthusiasm he took great pains, and within a few years the original tree had fathered two hundred trees and shrubs.

When the merchants who bought the first crop asked the name of the tea, he said: 'We must call it Kuan-Yin tea.' 'On account of the iron statue of Kuan-Yin in that old temple?' they asked. 'Just so,' he replied. As the name is a good one, it has never been changed. Growing more prosperous, Wei repaired the temple and images, and willingly gave away tea seed to his neighbours so all of them became well-to-do."

On Long Jing (Dragon's Well) tea:
"Around the year AD 250, so runs the story, a Taoist affirmed that there must be a dragon lurking in a certain spring not far from Hangchow. Having made this discovery at a time when the farmers had long been praying for rain, he implored the well dragon to come to their rescue. Instantly, clouds came rushing in from every side and poured forth timely rain. On this account the name of an old temple adjoining the spring is known as Dragon's Well Monastery, and the tea derives its name from the same legend.

Another source relates that a poor widow living in that particular vicinity owned a few tea trees and used their produce to brew tea for peasants harvesting tea nearby. One day a rich merchant, hearing of her kindness, remarked, 'A good-hearted woman like you deserves to be wealthy.' 'I am lucky not to starve,' she answered, smiling. Glancing round, he noticed a large stone mortar which happened to be full of leaves deposited by neighbouring tea trees over the years. 'Want to sell that old mortar?' he asked. 'If so, I'll come back and cart it off tomorrow.' She took the money offered, so the next morning he came back with some workmen to cart it away. To his surprise, the shabby old mortar had been swept and scoured. 'You can see I've made it nice for you,' smiled the old woman. 'All those leaves came in handy to manure my tea trees.' Heaven had clearly rewarded her charitableness by endowing the leaf mould with miraculous properties, for not long afterwards her eighteen tea trees put forth jade-green leaves the like of which had never before been seen. Such, according to this alternative account, was the origin of Dragon's Well tea. It is said that the old woman prospered greatly.

Those well acquainted with the kind of tea affirm that it achieved the utmost perfection when prepared with clear water from Tiger-Run Spring, which 'miraculously' appeared close to a temple not far from the tea garden. During the reign of the T'ang Emperor Yuan Ho (806-821) there was another terrible drought, and once again the people of Hangchow prayed vainly to the gods for rain. One day Abbot Hsing K'ung saw two tigers rush out from the nearby forest and start running to and fro in the temple grounds. Suddenly water began bubbling up from the ground trodden by their feet. From that day to this the spring has never run dry. Its water is marvellously clear, and when used to brew Dragon's Well tea the infusion looks like liquid jade besides giving forth a delicious fragrance the lingers on the palate. As a Ming visitor remarked centuries later: 'I'd love to be a monk living here always with such tea and such water for companions!'"

And finally, a lesson drawn from Korean tea history:
"According to the Venerable Popchong Sunim:
To determine whether a tea is good or not, one should examine the colour, scent and taste of the infusion. The perfect colour is that of the first leaves in spring; the scent is like that of a young baby. The taste cannot be described but can be appreciated with experience. Tea is drunk to quench the thirst, savour the taste, or simply to spend a quiet hour appreciating the pottery and the general atmosphere that accompanies tea drinking. There is no need to have a special attitude while drinking it, except one of thankfulness. The nature of the tea itself is that of no-mind. It does not discriminate or make differences. It just is."

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Tea Gum?

When I was in the grocery store today, I saw Tearrow's sugarless tea gum for sale, with "Natural Tea Flavor" and all. Five sticks of gum for 99 cents, heck you can't get anything for 99 cents anymore, so I bought 'em--and at about the same price as a cup of home brewed tea.

I'm chewing on the Oolong Tea flavor, and it still has a surprising amount of tea flavor after chewing for 10 minutes or so. It is sweet, and the tea taste is quite pleasant and actually tastes like tea. I would wager it's a Dong Ding oolong, tasting like what I've had served at Chinese restaurants here in the states. Floral and not at all bitter. Yum!

I'm curious to try the Black Tea flavor... let me give it a go. Hmm, the stick of gum is green, just like the oolong flavor, maybe a tad darker. Wow, this is sweet! Much more of a honey taste. Although, I can't really taste any tea at all.

Here are the ingredients of both gums, if you're curious: sorbitol, gum base, mannitol, tea powder, xylitol, natural flavorings. The various "tol's" are the sugarless sweeteners--that stuff they make out of sugar, but complexify it chemically so that the body can't break it down. That means no calories, and while Splenda and other calorie-free sugar substitutes claim that they simply pass undigested through the body, the headaches they have given me make me suspect that they aren't at all good for me.

Not that I pretend to resolve the sugar substitute debate here, but its synthetic nature alone is enough to go against Tearrow's own claim to why their gum is so healthy: "It's a bit cliche but the fact is 'we are what we eat'. We are the sum total of the good that we do (or fail to do) for ourselves. All of our body systems, our vital organs and the entire miracle of the healing process are entirely dependent on the living, bio-chemical integration between ourselves and nature."

This gum was tasty, and satisfies my sweet tooth, but on most days... I think I'll stick with drinking tea!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Phoenix Bird Oolong

Today I bought some Phoenix Bird Oolong tea from Silk Road Teas.

In Chinese, this tea is called "Feng Huang Dan Cong", or 凤凰单 丛 in Simplified Chinese, and fèng huáng dān cóng in Pinyin. fèng huáng means legendary phoenix, a mythological bird that is not related to the Egyptian myth. According to wikipedia, the bird symbolizes high virtue and peace, as well as the union between yin and yang. Interestingly, fèng by itself means male phoenix, and huáng means female phoenix, giving us both yin and yang. In the case of the tea, it refers more literally to the fenghuang mountains of the Guangdong province where this tea is produced. The dān cóng part of the name means "lone bush," referring to the fact that the leaves are harvested from old trees, purportedly more than 400 years of age.

The dry leaves are twisted lengthwise, and are quite dark, indicating high oxidation. It smells almost black, with a light floral hint. After 6 brewings, the leaves had still not totally unfolded, and were long and very narrow even when I unfolded them myself, being the narrowest tea leaves I've encountered. The grade of this tea is high, with almost entirely whole leaves, and few stems.

I pour a good 2 tsp into my teapot, and do several briefly steeped infusions with a modest 2-3 oz of boiling hot water each time.

First, a 5 second rinse

First brewing, 15 seconds
The liquor is a light honey color. Sweet at first, with a snappy bite to finish. The bite is brief and pleasant. The taste is woody, like toasted walnuts.

Second infusion, 15 seconds
"Hello!" the tea demands that its presence be harkened. The flavor has definitely opened up, and its freshness is vivid. Slightly floral--not like delicate orchid oolongs--but rather in a dark way, presumably due to higher oxidation. Every sip tastes different and has me probing to ascertain its complexities... or contrive them anyhow. :)

Third brew with fresh water in boiler, 15 second infusion
The snappy bitter bite is still there, is this the beak of the phoenix? I try sucking air to cool the tea in my mouth (even though I can't stand when folks make this obnoxious gurgling sound at tea tastings), and a whole bunch of flavors wash over my tongue as I swallow. Sweet, hearty, bitter, and a satisfying enough combination to cause a spontaneous "mmmm."

Fourth brew, 17 seconds
The bitterness dominates, becoming unpleasant. Is my water too hot?

Fifth brew at slightly lower temperature, 25 seconds
Less bitter, I think this helped.

Number six, even lower temp., 30 seconds
Less bitter, floral notes enhanced, but the tea is falling flat.

Seventh attempt, water not even steaming hot, 60 second
Eww, still very bitter. The phoenix has expired in flames.

Overall impression: 7/10. A quality tea, and another unexpected experience. This is the first time I have used such short brew times and small volumes of water. It definitely allowed me to see the tea evolve, and brought out so many characteristics that most of them fell off of the map of my palate, which was a welcome push into uncharted territory. I wonder why this got so bitter, though... is it because of the age of the tree? I don't think it was because of my brewing technique, however I do think the tea has far more potential that I was unable to unearth.

Will the phoenix rise again from its own ashes? ( subliminal plea for a thoughtful response :) )

Monday, August 13, 2007

Tea blogging tools

I thought I would share some websites that I have found useful when blogging about my passion for tea.

The Chinese Tea Term Translator is great at doing what it promises--translating most all tea terms used in Chinese into everyday English.

A good Chinese Dictionary is a must for a better understanding of Chinese as a language. This is important as Chinese culture is the culture that tea grew up in, and in order to understand a culture one must (at least attempt to) understand the language. This dictionary will translate English, Pinyin, traditional and simplified characters all in one place.

A Pinyin Keyboard is helpful when you want something better than Windows' Character Map when writing Pinyin.

A list of colors will help you better describe your tea without resorting to boring primary colors.

The Vino! Wine Dictionary has a lot of good wine tasting terms that apply perfectly to tea tasting as well. The Wine Lovers' Lexicon is also good. Here's a Silly Tasting Note Generator that goes overboard, but is fun nonetheless.

If anyone has other exceptionally useful sites, please share them with us in the comments!

Sunday, August 5, 2007

An Experiment Investigating Tea Grading

The larger the tea leaf the better? Well, if I have the choice between leaves from the bottom or the top of the barrel, I am going to buy the large, whole leaves that float to the top, not the "dust" at the bottom. The larger leaf grades of any given tea generally sell at higher prices than the broken bits do.

So, I go to my local tea store and buy a nice Ceylon bulk tea, with big, 2" leaves. These are nothing like the fannings I am used to seeing in black tea bags, although the bags are often composed of Ceylon black tea as well. So... I measure out about 2 grams, the same amount found in a standard tea bag. I brew it with boiling hot water, for about 4 minutes, just as I would a teabag, without the spatial constraint of the bag. The big leaves float around, uncurl nicely, and release their sweet tea goodness. But lo, the leaves produce a weak, insipid tea. I like my tea strong, that's why I went to buy the best grade Ceylon I could find!

With my usual morning tea needs not in the least bit satiated, I decide to take my frustration out on my new tea and commit the ultimate act of tea aficionado sacrilege. I take about 2 grams of the glorious leaves, that spread their wings wider than any tea exported from Ceylon, and I crush them into smithereens. And what do I get? Nothing less than expected--a potently dark cup of cha. YES!

So why is it that we like to pay lots more for big leaves, and then brew them so ineffectively? Hasn't it ever occurred to us to learn from our coffee-drinking rivals, and grind our high grade tea down for better extraction? Sure, big leaves look pretty, but they just don't do the trick unless a huge amount is brewed, or unless their big-headed megalomaniacal egos are properly put in their place and pummeled into the low ranks of the tea profiling hierarchy.


Thursday, August 2, 2007

Kishanganj Snow Bud White

Doke Organic Farm Kishanganj Snow Bud White

This is the second part of T Ching's current only tea tasting event.

The Doke farm from which this tea comes lies about 100 miles south of the Darjeeling region of India, close to the Ganges river in the state of West Bengal. This is a plain that lies below the Himalayan footlands, just a couple hundred feet above sea level. (Gotta love Google Earth!)

The dry tea is pristine, and looks like a high grade white tea with plenty of little hairs. Is this where they got the name "snow bud"? The leaves smell very fresh--sweet and not grassy.

I will follow T Ching's guidelines to brew this: "We recommend using 175 F / 80 C hot water or slightly lower. Use about 1.5 heaped teaspoons (about 6 grams) per 8 fluid oz of water for 3 minutes."

After a quick rinse, the aroma of the leaves reminds me of a sandy beach or the mild odor of a seafood restaurant. The pleasant smell of mild fish with lemon squeezed on it.

The resulting drink is peach in color. It tastes slightly sweet and fruity, like apricots. It is a mild taste, light and ephemeral. The chaqi is strong however, I feel a slight head rush and euphoric mellowness. It packs a mild bitter bite, which is not sour/astringent.

The second infusion, made with slightly hotter, steaming-hot water and brewed for 2 1/2 minutes, yields an even darker color liquor. But it produces a quite bland, flat taste, with a more viscous mouthfeel.

I have quite an energetic tea high!

I liked this, for a white tea. But white teas are not exactly my cup, since their flavor nuances are so subtle. Perhaps this is more suited for a gaiwan, with a higher leaf/water ratio, to make a stronger brew. Has anyone tried it this way?

The verdict: 6.5/10. Pretty good stuff! If not for the subtle flavor, for the strong theine buzz!

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Meghma Estate Nepalese Oolong Tea

As a participant in T Ching's current online tasting event, I am honored to partake in this virtual tea ceremony that is taking place throughout the online tea community. We have each received about 25g of two teas (although looks like a lot more to me!), along with instructions for how to brew them to their utmost capacity. Here is the first review.

Meghma Tea Estate's Spring 2007 Nepalese Oolong

This tea is something special. Firstly because Eastern Nepal (which borders the Darjeeling district of India) is famous for producing black teas, so an oolong tea grown in the lower Himalayas is a rarity. Secondly, a lot of care went into the production methods. It was not only produced organically, but also biodynamically--using herbal compost preparations and planting and harvesting in alignment with astronomical cycles. This holistic form of farming can theoretically impart the tea with a whole lot of qi.

The dry leaves are hand-rolled lengthwise, anywhere from 0.25"-1.5" in length, and dark in color--with earthy, fuscous browns, coppery reds and virescent greens. The smell is nutty and reminded me of the smell of raking leaves in the fall. Let's give it a shot in my little teapot... here are T Ching's brewing instructions:

"We recommend brewing this tea with premium quality water at near boiling temperature. Use about 1 heaped teaspoon (about 4 grams) of leaves per 8 fluid oz of water for 3 minutes."

I give the four grams a quick rinse, and the aroma from the steamy leaves is very recognizable: baked butternut squash and baked yams. Upon infusion with near boiling water, the water almost instantly turns green, then becomes yellow, and progresses to an amber by the time the three minutes are up.

After infusion, the leaves are greener than expected. They are quite small in size, on average only about 0.5" wide and 1" long. Are these young leaves, or simply from the Chinese variety of Camellia sinensis? I also notice that they are not tattered along the edges like other oolongs. According to an interview with Madan Tamang of the Meghma Tea Estate, they use a production method closer to that used to produce Taiwanese (a.k.a. Formosa) oolongs. It is part of the Chinese traditional method of producing oolongs to bruise the leaf edges, which was apparent in a Tie Guan Yin I reviewed. Is this not the traditional method in Taiwan? Tamang does not mention the bruising step in his interview--only hand-rolling, fermenting, and firing.

Now to the fun part, the flavor! This is definitely different from any oolong I have tried. While it does have a slightly floral high-note, it reminds me of milky plant sap more than floral sweetness found in other teas. The tea is sweet, however, tasting of honey, raisins, and almonds. Is the muscatel quality due to the estate's proximity to Darjeeling? The low-note is of pumpkin, and lingers without drying the mouth. The overall mouthfeel is also pleasantly buttery. There is virtually no bitterness or astringency to be found here--it is a very smooth tea.

A second, slightly longer (~4 min) infusion produces a darker liquor. The flavor is not as complex, flat but somehow sweeter than the first brew, like brown sugar.

The tea buzz is not one that induces profound enlightenment or epiphanal alignment with the astros, but it does give the mild jolt that tea tends to give me.

Overall, I thought this tea was yummy! It was a pleasure to have a piece of Nepal passed through many caring hands to my tea cup. It will be one I come back to, and look forward to sharing with others. I give this tea a solid 7.5/10.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Peerless Teas

Review of Peerless Coffee and Tea Company Teas

(image posted from Peerless' Website)

I bought four tea samples from this local company, spanning a gamut of the world's black teas:

Assam, Keemun, Darjeeling, and English Breakfast.

The teas were all similarly priced, and quite cheaply at that, the most expensive being the Darjeeling at $10.30 for a pound. But I definitely got what I paid for. Here are some notes on each variety:

Assam ($9.35 for 16 oz.)

Peerless' website describes this tea as "A very dark Indian tea with a heavy cup - strong and pungent." The dry leaves were small and whole to roughly cut, about 1/4" long, with some golden leaves peppering the mostly black bits. The golden leaves, fair leaf size, and robust smell made me expect a decently good cup. Boy, was I wrong. This was definitely my least favorite of these four teas. While it produced a dark tea liquor, the strength was mediocre at best. But the taste... that's what really killed this tea. A minor detail to skimp on. The taste was musty, like old hardbound books that smell of years on a shelf in a bookshop. While this can be pleasant to smell on an old book, causing nostalgic wonder about where the book has been, it is not a flavor that is pleasantly ingested. I even rinsed the leaves before brewing, but this musty flavor predominated.

Overall rating: 1/10. Not really drinkable.

Keemun ($8.35 for 16 oz.)

This tea is described as having "Superb bouquet, rich and perfume-like." The leaf bits of this tea were about 1/4", or about yay long: ==. After brewing, the leather-brown leaf pieces had not opened up, and there were quite a few twig bits. The tea liquor was also brown in color, and not too dark. I enjoyed the interesting flavors this tea presented, mostly because it was different from any black tea I've tried. The taste itself wasn't terribly complex, but the way this singular taste unfolded in my mouth made drinking it an experience. While not strongly affecting the taste buds on the surface of my tongue (at least compared to most Indian black teas), tangible waves of flavor passed through the deeper layers of my gustatory viscera. The most curious was an aftertaste that kicked in about three seconds after swallowing: a wave of slight bitterness that began on the front of my neck and traveled up my adam's apple and through the center of the tongue muscle to its tip. I had never experienced this before, and it happened sip after sip. Definitely an energetically charged tea. This made me wonder about the meaning of "keemun" in Chinese, which I found to be written as qímén in Pinyin and hence pronounced "chee-mun." Qi as in energy/breath/air? No, that qi is pronounced with the fourth tone, written qì in Pinyin, and written as . The of Keemun means 'pray' or 'abundant', and is written as 祁 . Mén, or 门, means door. I assume that together qímén, which refers to the county in China that this tea comes from, means something like "gate of abundance." Any insight here, anyone?

Besides the interesting evolution of flavor waves in my mouth, the tea had a woodsy taste something like oak... not piney, however. When trying to describe the taste in words as the tea lingered in my mouth, wise also seemed appropriate.

Overall impression: 6/10. While not incredibly tasty, the experience of this tea was a surprise. It was a reminder as to how incredibly complex the tea world is, and a fun branch of the "tea tree" to climb.

Darjeeling ($10.30 for 16 oz.)

Peerless calls this one "
An Indian tea with a strong, fragrant, full-bodied liquor." I love the way Darjeeling looks, with its confetti of colors: green, gold, auburn, black... The confetti bits of this tea were not at all rolled or shaped, and the flakes simply expanded upon brewing, the largest to the size of a pencil eraser. They produced a golden brown liquor after a two-and-a-half minute steeping. The scent that effused was floral, reminiscent of a tie guan yin oolong. The taste, however, was slightly sweet, smooth, with a winey character. An astringent bite followed, and each sip dried my mouth out, making me want more. Maybe it was just my mind fantasizing, but the tea actually tasted like India, inducing images of camels carrying burlap sacks of mountain grown tea (I bet you're thinking, "don't camels live in the desert?").

The experience synopsized: 5/10. I like this tea, especially its "just enough" astringency.

Two out of three ain't bad. Fortunately for Peerless though, they are better known for their coffees!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Twinings' Irish Breakfast Tea

Twinings Classic "Irish Breakfast Tea"
I picked this up yesterday to compare to Twinings' other teas. I understand that it is probably hard to take reviews of bagged tea very seriously, but I want to make sure I cover the foundation, and don't aim my tea aspirations too high just yet. I would love to be a connoisseur, but I don't know nearly enough.

I brewed one bag in boiling hot water for 3.5 minutes. My first impression is that it definitely has a stronger flavor than any of Twinings' other bagged teas. I enjoyed this, since I feel that their baggies are weak compared to say PG Tips.

The flavor is definitely "robust," as the box advertises, without any bitterness or astringency to speak of. Perhaps these would be more apparent at longer brew times.

Robust, however, has two meanings. The first is simply strength, and the flavor definitely qualifies as strong--although I wouldn't mind two bags. The second is an ability to perform well under a wide range of conditions. This was tested by dumping some of the tea particles onto one end of the tight-rope walk of my flea circus set. Although the bits of tea were dry, they performed much as the Irish might after getting good and liquored up--falling left and right off of the high tight-rope platform. Their ability to perform here would certainly have earned them robustness points, but I concluded the test to be too rigorous for such a pedestrian tea, and decided to give it the less stringent test of simply adding milk and honey.

The milk and honey test was performed with a 4 minute brew, and with just a bit of these added ingredients, so as to enhance the flavor of the tea, not overtake it. This brew also achieved good results. Here are the qualities of this tea as I perceived them over the two brewing sessions:

  • Decently strong, full-bodied liquor that satisfies the back of the throat when swallowed nice and hot.
  • "Slight citrus undertones" I am not sure where I have heard this phrase before, but it is a pretty good description of this tea's flavor. The phrase probably appeals to the combination of astringency and bitterness of tea. Citrus fruit juice is astringent/sour, and citrus pith and peel are bitter.
  • This is not wholly unlike Twinings English Breakfast tea. The Irish Breakfast packs a little more depth and is slightly more patient, lingering in my mouth long after I have swallowed.
The down side:
  • While this tea packs a good amount of strength in my mouth, I don't find that it does much to wake me. As I am now editing my draft before publishing this post, I have to correct this initial reaction, as I now have a pretty good caffeine buzz after two cups of this stuff.
  • My second complaint is that the tea does not taste very fresh. This is the same problem that the Twinings Ceylon bagged tea had, and I suspect that it is because Twinings puts inferior tea in their bags and sells the good stuff in their tins. I would be curious to try the Irish Breakfast from a tin.
Overall verdict: 4/10
For a bagged tea, this one is pretty decent. Good at breakfast time because of its strength. However, I find Twinings loose tea to be far superior to any of their bags.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Twinings' Ceylon Tea

Twinings - Origins Line "Ceylon Tea"
Twinings "Ceylon Tea," part of their Origins series, is characterized as "A bright, amber, refreshing black tea with a distinctive subtle flavor." It lies at "medium" in their flavor strength range. And in accordance with the name, its origin is purely Sri Lankan (interesting side note: Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon until it changed its name in 1972).

For a bagged morning cuppa, I brewed this tea in boiling hot water for 4 minutes (right in the middle of their 3-5 minute prescribed brew time). I tasted this tea both plain and with a bit of milk and honey. I found the flavor to be comparable to their most popular English Breakfast tea, but inferior in several ways:

  • The tea lacks body and strength. The flavor of the teaspoon of milk I added gave more flavor than the tea itself.
  • It lacks astringency, which I expected since the word "bright" was the first adjective on the box.
  • Although each tea bag is individually sealed, it does not have the freshness characteristic of Twinings' English Breakfast.
  • To top it all off, there is an obvious dusty taste literally reminiscent of household dust. I think this is the secret behind their "distinctive subtle flavor."
Upon inspection of the fannings inside the bag, the bits of leaves are the smallest I have ever encountered. After brewing, the inside of the bag contained a pulpy mass.

I suspect that Twinings uses tea from these Ceylon farms to blend some of their more popular teas. When they had nothing to do with the dirty fannings at the bottom of their barrels, they decided to create a new product line and call it "Origins" as if it were more pure. This tea, my friends, is the result.

Overall Verdict: BLECH!

Friday, July 6, 2007

Cool Quote

Lu Yu (Chinese: 陆羽; Pinyin: Lù Yǔ) explains in his Tea Classics (Chinese: 茶经, Pinyin: chájīng) that the best tea leaves must "...unfold like a mist rising out of a ravine, gleam like a lake touched by a zephyr, and be wet and soft like fine earth newly swept by rain."

Add your quote or inspired poetry in the comments.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

A Nice Cup of Tea

I found this great excerpt all about tea by George Orwell over at Cha bei teablog. He outlines his—count them—eleven Golden Rules of tea. It is great to see his (very English) perspective as it was written 61 years ago. My favorites include:

"China tea has virtues which are not to be despised nowadays — it is economical, and one can drink it without milk — but there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it."

What about rich and successful? I can't settle for a mere morale boost!

"Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot. No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea."

How dare you imprison my tea!

"If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water."

I think Orwell was onto a million dollar idea with that hot sugar water drink.

"Some people would answer that they don't like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again."

Or how about obtaining some GOOD tea rather than trying to force your tastebuds to acclimate to rubbish?

Thank you for this Cha bei!

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Magnitude 6.3 Earthquake in Pu-erh

An earthquake struck the heart of the Pu-erh tea growing region of Yunnan province in China earlier this month. I wonder what the tea gods are trying to tell us??

For more info on the earthquake, check out this ReliefWeb link.

Tea drinkers worry that prices of pu-erh will go up even more. According to the UK Telegraph, pu-erh prices were already on the rise in 2006--increasing 50% that year alone. Since the quake, prices have risen another 30-50%. Pu-erh is now worth its weight in gold six times over!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

My first tea review - Monkey Picked Oolong

Monkey Picked Oolong

铁观音 ; tiěguānyīn

This tea, from the Fujian province of China, traces its name back to when Buddhist monks trained monkeys to harvest the youngest leaves from the tops of wild tea trees. This tea is also known as "Iron Goddess of Mercy," alluding to Buddhism’s bodhisattva of mercy and compassion. The source of this tea is Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco, and is priced at $95/lb ($5.94/oz).

The dry leaves have two distinct tones of green, a light green and a dark swamp green, demonstrating the partial fermentation of the tea oils. Hues of orange and blue are subtly apparent. Observing how the small pellets unfurl as they are brewed, they must have been carefully hand-rolled—first lengthwise from both edges to the middle of the leaf, and then these strips were rolled into pellets.

1st brew, 20s
2nd brew, 30s
3rd brew, 40s
4th brew, 50s

By the third brew the leaves are fully open. After pouring out the tea liquor, the leaves are glossy and have an even color tone. The leaves appear young, being 2” long at most. They have serrated edges with occasional edge-tears, probably from traditional basket tumbling—or “yaoqing” in Chinese (摇青; yáoqīng).

The third brew is the best of the four infusions. The fourth brew is still potent, but the flavor begins to wane.

Each brew produces a bright, orange-green liquor with a still film on the surface depicting the islets of a river delta, steaming as if the morning river fog is being lifted away by the sun.

To be tasted with the nose while sipping, this tea is full of floral notes reminiscent of high mountain pastures in early springtime, combined with a bright aroma of fresh coastal conifers. It has enough body to satisfy without any earthiness or taste of Chinese herbs.

The mouthfeel is buttery and slightly viscous, and rolls off the edges of my tongue like the water of a thermal spring over the rounded edge of a smooth stone. There is no oily film after swallowing, but rather a hint of dry astringent aftertaste that tonifies the roots of my teeth and tingles my brain.

The effects of this tea are softening to the body and arousing to the mind. My throat chakra softened, blossoming open. I felt wide waves flow up the back of my head. My attention was drawn to my breathing—slow, steady, and soft-bellied. My mind became alert with the same freshness of the tea’s flavor, and my eyes brightened. A calm sense of well-being made the corners of my mouth turn up, and I experienced a euphoric levity.

This is a good early afternoon tea to be enjoyed in the summer sun and fresh air, and is easily my favorite oolong so far. I am always looking to try new teas, so get in touch if you would like to make a trade! :)

Has anyone else tried this tea or something with a similar name? What do you think of it?

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Empty Boat

The Empty Boat
by Zhuangzi, 4th cent. BC

Should a boatman while crossing a river
Have an empty boat crash into his boat
Even if he is a man who is quick to anger
His anger will not rage.

Yet if he sees someone in that boat
He will yell and scream telling him
Get out of my way.

And if his yelling is not responded to
He will yell all the louder
And begin swearing and cursing.
All that just because someone is in the boat.
Yet if it were an empty boat
He would not be angry nor shouting.

If you are able to empty your own boat
That is empty yourself of yourself
During your time in the world
There will be no one opposing you
There will be no one out to harm you.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Milk bags benefits of tea? UPDATE!

For a great new article on the issue about adding milk to your tea and its influence on its antioxidant capacity, check the latest addition to Chemistea : The cream of the crop - interactions of black tea and dairy. The tea chemist concludes:

Since theaflavin now exists as a [casein-theaflavin] complex, it loses the antioxidant properties it once posesses... the antioxidant potential of the tea after milk has been added is roughly 80% of it's original."

The scientific study that tb cites focuses mainly on the polyphenols found in green tea, analyzing the masking of many individual polyphenols that are abundant in green tea and not so abundant in black tea. It does so for both green and black teas, and gives proportions for how each polyphenol accounts for the total antioxidant masking in both teas (see Figure 5 in the PDF). Accordingly, theaflavin only accounts for 0.6% of the total antioxidant masking, whereas tb considers theaflavin to be the main culprit involved. The source article does not however analyze thearubigin, and I assume this falls under the "unknown" category in this study. In fact, 85% of what contributes to the masking that beta-casein provides is in the "Unknown" category. What is the antioxidant that is masked by milk proteins? The study speculates:

Probably tannins, polymers of oxidized polyphenols (9), have a significant contribution to the antioxidant capacity of black tea."

Could it be thearubigin? The study specifically mentions polymers as contributing to the antioxidant capacity of black tea. This likeliness that it is thearubigin is confirmed by another study, which says: "The major fractions of black tea polyphenols, accounting for >20% of the solids in brewed black tea, are known as thearubigens."

But how thearubigen and its polymer chain reacts with milk proteins, we do not know. According to tb, the thearubigin polymer chains that are almost instantly formed when released into hot water are stable enough that they will not react with the compounds in milk. Is this true? And if so, which antioxidants account for the majority of the masking done by milk proteins?

More questions to answer, the search for tea knowledge continues!! Time to ponder and enjoy a good cup of green tea :)

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The ABC's of T

Tea 101

When I say tea, I don't mean just anything boiled in water that's drinkable. Tea is often confused with these herbal decoctions, a.k.a. herbal teas, herbal infusions, "teasanes," Wildberry Zinger, etc. Nope... I'm talking about that one divine plant, scientifically classified as Camellia sinensis. Camellia is the genus, and sinensis, the species, means "Chinese" in Latin. And not just any part of the plant can be used to make the #1 consumed beverage in the world (after water), only the leaves. Here are some other interesting facts about the plant:

  • Camellia sinensis is native to tropical regions of southeast asia, preferring heavy rainfall and acidic soil conditions.
  • The plant has a lifespan of more than 100 years!
Tea History (2737 B.C. - present)

Legend has it that Chinese emperor Shen Nung (which means "divine healer") was boiling his water to drink, and the breeze blew some leaves from a nearby bush right into his imperial cup. Being that he was a great teacher of agriculture and herbology, he decided to taste the color-infused water. Noticing the relaxing yet uplifting effects, and increased sense of well-being, he insisted that the others try it. And so tea was born.

In China, they originally called tea "cha." This is the most commonly used name across all of China. But when tea first reached Europe it came from the Fujian province of China, where the local Fukienese dialect calls it "tey." Countries such as India, Russia, and Turkey use the word "cha" since they were introduced to tea by traders traveling overland from China along the Silk Road.

Tea Biochemistry

The graphic to the right shows an approximate breakdown of what biochemicals compose the tea leaf. This was compiled from information in a very good article on the biochemistry of tea. The slices of this tea-pie that most tea-drinkers will pay attention to are the polyphenols (in lavender), which are potent anti-oxidants, and caffeine (in orange), a potent pick-me-up. Caffeine imparts a strong cup of tea with its ability to energize, increase alertness, and elevate your mood. Anti-oxidants have shown to be very beneficial for ones health, including the ability to reduce the risk of cancer! While it is good to analyze the individual constituents of tea and the properties they tout, it is important to remember that the act of focusing on one aspect of the plant can make us lose sight of its complexity in a greater context. These individual constituents of tea are what they are because of their interaction with a multitude of other factors during the plant's evolutionary history. This includes the complex network of chemical reactions that take place in the leaves as they absorb the sun's radiant light, breathe carbon dioxide and aspire oxygen, the complex nutrient exchange that takes place at the roots, and the ecosystem or network that the plant is ecologically embedded in, depending on and providing for a multitude of organisms--both of the micro and large type. A large organism of key importance here is man, since the plant has been subject to artificial selection, meaning humans have selected for the qualities in tea that are most desirable during thousands of years of practicing its cultivation. It is also important to gain insight as to how these ecological networks, their components and interactions have changed over time and continue to do so as evolution unfolds. This holistic perspective on tea is something that reaches beyond the scope of words, and can only be tapped into by experiencing tea itself, a one-on-one conversation between you and the plant's brewed essence--a dialog that many great sages and philosophers have no doubt had during epiphanous moments of inspiration. Lao Tzu drank tea as he wrote the Tao Te Ching in the 6th century BC, calling it the "elixir of immortality."

A Tea Prism

Just like light through a prism, we can obtain an entire spectrum of teas from the one plant--from white tea to black tea and everything in between. First about the varieties of Camellia sinensis. There are two main varieties, the Assamese variety (Camellia sinensis var. assamica) and the Chinese variety (Camellia sinensis var. sinensis). The Assamese variety is a tree that grows quite tall, about 6-20 meters, and has large leaves. The Chinese variety is a small bush that reaches about 3 meters in height, and has smaller leaves that are more resistant to cold temperatures. Since the tea exportation industry has had a long time to develop on a worldwide scale, both of these main varieties are found in all of the top tea producing nations. In the internationally known tea plantations of Darjeeling, Assamese varieties are grown at lower altitudes, and Chinese varieties at the cold, higher altitudes. As you might imagine, the two main varieties of tea branch off into hundreds of classified varieties. Interestingly however, there appears to be more genetic variation among the Chinese varieties than the Assamese varieties, perhaps because China was the first country to value tea as a beverage and have been cultivating it longer and into more diverse geographical regions.
Besides genetics, many factors determine the quality of the harvested tea leaf. Altitude influences the amount of chlorophyll or green pigmentation in the leaf. There are two primary pickings of the leaves, once harvested in early spring and again in early summer. The first flush is generally considered superior, although this is not true for some varieties and climate conditions. Some plants are even harvested during the cold and dry months of winter such as in the case of plantations of southern India.
While the actual plant which the tea leaves are picked from definitely has a lot to do with your resulting brew, there are many ways to process the leaves which can produce a whole gamut of flavors. This is how a tea leaf becomes either white, yellow, green, oolong, red, or black tea! The primary steps in processing include: picking, wilting, bruising, oxidizing, shaping, drying, and curing. Whether or not or to what degree the leaf undergoes each of these steps will ultimately determine the resulting type of tea.

  1. Wilting is a primary drying stage during which the leaf loses water weight and suffers very light oxidation.
  2. Bruising releases some of the leaf's juices to change the taste profile of the tea as well as promote faster oxidation.
  3. Oxidation, also known as fermentation (incorrectly, since no microorganisms are involved), is the most influential step in determining the tea's ultimate biochemical contents and thus flavor. The green leaves are left in a dark room and turn a darker color as they absorb oxygen, undergoing enzymatic reactions that break down the chlorophyll and in turn produce tannins. Green teas are not at all oxidized, oolongs are only partially oxidized, and black teas are fully oxidized.
  4. Shaping can include hand or machine-rolling the leaves--lengthwise into strips, into spirals or pellets, or tying them together into balls or other elaborate display-tea shapes.
  5. Drying is the last step for most teas, and can be accomplished by panning, air-drying, sun-drying, or baking.
  6. Curing is a secondary-fermentation and aging process used to produce "pu-erh" teas.
Here is a graphic that shows six types of teas and how they are differently processed:

White tea is the least processed type of tea. New growth leaves are used, and therefore don't have very much green pigmentation. It is baked to deactivate oxidative enzymes and thus halt oxidation. The leaves are then shaped and dried. Fine white tea is so unprocessed that it still has the small hairs on the leaves. White tea is a specialty of the Fujian province of China. White tea differs from green tea in their proportions of antioxidant compounds, and white tea has more caffeine, as well as more anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties than green tea.
Yellow tea is similar to white and green teas, but undergoes a slower drying phase to give it a unique flavor. It is not very popular and may be difficult to obtain.
Green tea is widely popular in China, Japan, Taiwan, and Morocco. It is becoming increasingly popular in the Western world, as it has relatively recently been discovered to have wide-ranging health benefits. The mature tea leaves are heated quickly after harvesting by either steaming (following Japanese tradition) or dry heating in pans (as the Chinese do) to halt oxidation. There are thousands of green tea varieties to be appreciated for their unique intricacies.
Oolong tea is labor intensive and often very delicately produced. The leaves are first wilted, then bruised on the edges to enhance oxidation. Next the leaves are 30-70% oxidized during 2-3 days before they are heated to halt the oxidation, and finally dried. Oolong literally means "black dragon" in Chinese.
Black tea is the most commonly drunk tea in the Western world, including the U.S. and Europe. It is a fully oxidized tea. Fully oxidized tea is known as red tea in China, although the Chinese processing techniques don't use the CTC method of bagged black teas. CTC stands for "Crushing, Tearing, and Curling" the tea leaves, a method discovered to allow bulk processing since it is done by machine. The leaves are passed through cylindrical rollers with lots of little teeth on them, precisely to crush, tear, and curl the leaves, yielding small leaf pieces that are quicker brewing and able to be more efficiently packed than loose leaf tea. While this method makes massive tea production more cost-effective and dominates the tea export market, it compromises the flavor that is obtained by traditional processing methods.

Brewing that perfect cup

From "high tea" to "kung fu" tea, there are many ways to make and enjoy the beverage after the leaves have been obtained. Bagged tea is convenient, quick, and easy, and more commonly found in the Western world. For a quick caffeine boost, with milk and sugar, and off to work, or so that everyone can choose how they like their cup of tea, since bags can go directly in the cup. Loose leaf tea is what has traditionally been used in China, and is slowly becoming more popular in the West as more people are discovering the wonders of tea and all of its subtleties. Due to the large leaf size, it is difficult to brew loose leaves in the cramped space of a bag, so many techniques are used to brew and then filter the leaves so they don't end up in your cup. Of the most interesting is "gong fu" or "kung fu" tea. Yes, the Chinese characters are the same as the butt-kicking "kung fu" that seems so different from a relaxing cup of tea. But the concept applies to both art forms--the martial type and the tea making type--and denotes "skill from practice." Every step in preparation is carefully and artfully executed with a series of utensils that are also artfully crafted. Temperature is a very important consideration here. The perfect temperature water is used not only to brew the tea, but to clean the cups before and between brewings, and to warm the teapot inside and out. The tea is multiply brewed, the second brewing often considered the best of all. It is also important to consider the flavor change based on brew time, brew round, and where the water sits in the pot, and for this reason the tea is poured into the cups in a circular fashion. The last drops of tea from the pot are so valued to even have a special name, and should be shared among each cup. Careful attention to the necessary overflowing and spilling of water is also key to an artful presentation. "Gong fu cha" is a beautiful, almost ritualistic ceremony for which there are even regional and national competitions in China.
Brewing that perfect cup definitely starts with a clean source of water, and important to consider is tea quantity, water temperature, and brewing times. Black, bagged tea is generally brewed with boiling water (230° Fahrenheit/100° Celsius) for 3-5 minutes. Loose leaf oolong and green teas are brewed with steaming-hot water (~180-190° Fahrenheit/82-88° Celsius) for 20 seconds-2 minutes, extending the time a bit with each brew. White teas are brewed at this less than boiling temperature for a longer period of about 3-5 minutes, since it doesn't get bitter. There is a lot of varying opinion on how to brew tea, and the best way to learn is by experimenting for yourself.

The best way to learn, and to truly enjoy your tea, is to forget everything you may have learned here, since tea can only be poured into an empty cup.

"Empty yourself of everything.
Let the mind become still.
The ten thousand things rise and fall while the Self watches their
They grow and flourish and then return to the source.
Returning to the source is stillness,
Which is the way of nature."
-Lao Tzu
Tao Te Ching

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Tea quotes

A couple of my favorites...
"If you are cold, tea will warm you. If you are heated, it will cool you. If you are depressed, it will cheer you. If you are excited, it will calm you."
~ William Gladstone

"The first bowl sleekly moistened throat and lips,
The second banished all my loneliness
The third expelled the dullness from my mind,
Sharpening inspiration gained
from all the books I've read.
The fourth brought forth light perspiration,
Dispersing a lifetime's troubles through my pores.
The fifth bowl cleansed ev'ry atom of my being.
The sixth has made me kin to the Immortals.
This seventh...
I can take no more."
~ Lu Tung, Chinese Poet

Milk bags benefits of tea?

According to a group of cardiologists and scientists in Berlin, adding milk to your tea eliminates at least some of the healthful properties of tea. For a complete article, go here.
Black tea improves the body's ability to relax its arteries, but not when milk is added! They tested both humans and rats.

"Their study showed that the culprit in milk is a group of proteins called caseins, which they found interacted with the tea to decrease the concentration of catechins in the beverage."

There are a couple of suspicions I have about the study. First of all is their insistence on the word 'catechins' as in the above quote. While green tea has a large concentration of catechin type polyphenols, black tea only has about 1/4 the amount. Catechins are converted during the tea oxidation/fermentation process to theaflavins--an entirely different class of flavonoids which are practically non-existent in green tea (unoxidized) but abundant in black tea (fully oxidized). Theaflavins are responsible for the antioxidant activity that give black tea its benefits, and would presumably cause arterial dilation.
Whether their chemical nomenclature is actually faulted or not does not however call into question the empirical results of the study. But I wonder about these results as well. Sure, black tea on an empty stomach is going to be absorbed by the body quickly and all at once compared to black tea and milk. But those newly formed "catechin-casein" compounds will ultimately be broken down by digestion. Won't they then be absorbed by the body just the same? It doesn't seem the caseins would be able to somehow block the effects of the tea, but rather simply slow their onset until all the compounds in the beverage are broken back down by the body. The study only measured the test groups' arterial pressure twice, once before beverage ingestion, and once two hours after ingestion. It could easily be imagined that an hour later the effects of pure black tea have worn off and those of the milky tea are now more noticeable. In any case, the study is not too convincing.
Now what about the health of tea-drinkers that routinely put milk in their morning cup? It would be interesting to compare the health of nations with this reputation, such as England, compared to that of non-dairy purists such as China. I tried looking online for hypertension rates of these nations, but there was no one study that compared both in the same way. Depending on the study that analyzes hypertension rates in adults for either country, they are reported as anywhere from 10-40%, and aren't consistent enough to trust. A deeper look into this might be coming soon...