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!