Friday, September 23, 2011

Bai Hao Oolong (caffeinated)

Hm. This tea tested my patience. I brewed it in a teapot, in a tea sachet; at 208F, 180F, and 203F; for three minutes, four minutes. Never did I get the result that Harney & Sons describes: "This is a dark oolong from Taiwan that is similar to Fanciest Formosa Oolong, but it has more body. There are stone fruit aromas without any charcoal masking of the fruit aromas."

I tried to sense what this tea was all about by putting a teaspoon of this tea in the bottom of a mug just poured nearly dry of boiling water; I cupped my hands over the light steam that arose from the warm damp leaves and got a light hint of a green grassy aroma, plus a whisper of some fruit. Maybe this sample was just not that fresh; or perhaps I'm missing something in my tea-making process, though it's hard to imagine that a details-obsessed foodie such as I am, equipped with an instant read thermometer, fine tea sieve, teapot, two mugs, and a source of filtered hot water, could really miss the mark by this wide a margin. The only similarity between my experience and Harney's description was that the tea was indeed dark. Surprisingly dark for such little flavor. A disappointment!

So my first foray into Oolongs has ended with a whimper instead of a bang. Maybe I'll try another assortment sometime and give this tea variety another chance, although at this point I'm tempted to mark Fanciest Formosa Oolong as the only one I like, and just move on.

Next up: black tea breakfast blends, including Scottish and Irish. And I really must create some posts soon about decaf black teas.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Fanciest Formosa Oolong (caffeinated)

Fanciest Formosa, ready for its closeup

This was one of Harney & Sons' more expensive Oolongs, costing $2 per cup when bought in the 2 oz size; if you bought it by the pound, you'd pay $1.44 per cup. (Their costliest is currently Top Ti Quan Yin, only available in a 2 oz. tin for $54 -- you'd get 20 to 25 cups of tea from that tin. More than two bucks per cup!)

It would be a shame to compare it to the Pomegranate Oolong I had yesterday. This Fanciest Formosa was in a different category, transcendent. I brewed it at 203F for the first brewing and 208F for the second brewing, both timed for four minutes. The first brewing had it all: a light peach aroma, plus other exquisite fruit notes I couldn't identify, and a beautiful half & half presence of black tea and green tea. It was so good and so delicate at the same time that I devoted at least five minutes to the gradual consumption of this tea. I used my most refined teacup, held it in both hands, and took reverent sips. I can see why this tea is prized.

The second brewing took the peach/fruit aromas down about 80%, but preserved the half-and-half black/green tea balance completely.

I experienced the caffeine hit at a 5 out of 10, but since I got up before dawn today, the tea might really be a 6 for a well-rested person. Today, Tuesday September 20, is an overcast day with a high of 70F and a low forecast at 64F; rain due in the afternoon. A soft weather day, streaked with chilliness when the wind blows; a little dreary. And since I spent my morning in the museum-quality atmosphere of the Upper East Side, "fanciest" appealed to me most among the choices I had, as well as the Oolong's full taste but gentle weight.

"Formosa" is the old Portuguese word for Taiwan. It means "beautiful island."

According to Wikipedia, the name oolong comes from the Chinese for "black dragon tea," 烏龍茶. (Characters are linked to the Google Translate page. Try the "Listen" button to hear the pronunciation, which I hear as Oo loung cha; tones 2, 3, and neutral, respectively.)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Pomegranate Oolong (caffeinated)

I don't normally go for flavored black tea. I suspect the tea itself of being a lesser quality, "tarted up" with some kind of fruity aroma. But I trust Harney & Sons, so I got a sample packet of their Pomegranate Oolong.

Oolong is a funny sort of tea. It's somewhere between green and black, and is usually pretty light in color when brewed, but full of flavor. Great care is taken during the curing process to only partially oxidize the leaves, so what we have here is a natural process halted. H&S likens it to keeping a ripe banana from getting any riper. I suspect that there is an exquisite moment -- a peak in the flavor -- that happens in the oxidation process, and the Oolong is supposed to capture it.

In advertisements for the ballet, or modern dance, you often see a dancer who has been photographed in mid-action, poised in defiance of time. The Oolong aesthete must regard his cup of tea similarly.

I brewed this tea at 203F for three minutes. It didn't seem strong enough so I brewed it two more minutes. The tea was nice, but when I opened the drained teapot to sniff the damp leaves, there was a richness of aroma there -- vanilla, fruit, banana even, among green and brown woodsy notes. I was sorry this didn't carry into the tea more; drinking it was a lesser experience than smelling those brewed leaves! The pomegranate flavor was nice, light enough to let the flavor of the tea come through, but definitely a presence I could recognize and that stayed on my tongue minutes after the final sip.

Caffeine hit was a 6 out of 10.

A pretty good value by the pound: $24. A pound of this tea will make 150 to 160 cups of tea, so each cup costs no more than 16 cents.

Black Tea Blend: Supreme Breakfast (caffeinated)

I realized that the water I'm using is not hot enough! I had to microwave my mug in order to get it to the proper boiling point, 212F. I also wasn't brewing long enough; five minutes is what Harney & Sons recommends. I really enjoyed the aroma from the Supreme Breakfast, although it was a bit smokier than I expected. Milk didn't improve this tea, instead masking the interesting flavors.

Friday September 16: it's a beautiful bright sunny cool Fall day here in New York. I had a shortbread biscuit with this tea and felt glorious; caffeine hit was 9 out of 10, bringing me to the edge of nervous trembles.

I appreciate tea, and I enjoy writing about it, but I know when to step back and allow the words of another, truer believer to carry the day. This is from "Ryan B" at the Harney & Sons website comments:

"Supreme Breakfast is a very full-bodied, well-rounded blend. I find that it requires neither milk nor sugar to be fully enjoyed, though a very conservative amount of either is fine. In general I find Assam teas to be very round, earthy, soft, straightforward and robust, whereas Keemun teas have a thinner, darker, dryer, more rigid yet subtler character, occasionally too astringent for my taste. Supreme Breakfast is an excellent combination of these two teas. The hearty Assam softens the rigidity of the Keemun, removes its slight smokiness and rounds its edges without overwhelming its more subtle flavor, and the piercing quality of the Keemun cuts through the Assam’s simple, almost corpulent body to add a more nuanced taste and a much more interesting finish than either tea has on its own. It’s as if the Keemun is providing mature guidance and structure to the jolly, playful Assam in a shared quest to overwhelm your taste buds with flavor and depth. I highly recommend this tea."

Black Tea Blend: East Frisian (caffeinated)

East Friesland Tea Museum
East Friesland is a region of northwestern Germany that drinks a lot of tea. They have a tea museum, a river called Ems, and earlier this year I dated a fellow named Frisch (a good old Saxon surname), so I wanted to try this tea.

I  brewed this tea using the office coffee machine's hot water spigot, and brewed the tea for four minutes. The result was a beautiful light tea that reminded me of all the good parts of a beer and a pastry and warmed my stomach at the same time.

Thursday, September 15 was a weird day weather-wise in NYC; it started as summer, warm and humid, and then after a brief midday rain shower the temperature plummeted to 60F under dark grey skies and brisk winds. I appreciated this tea, and my emergency office sweater, greatly today.

Fun page about East Friesland and their tea culture (stirring is verboten!):

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Great Tea Experiment: Prologue

Camellia sinensis, the tea plant
Even though my dad worked for Lipton all my childhood, I fell into appreciating tea my junior year abroad in Scotland. You need cool damp weather to really appreciate tea and Scotland has plenty. Plus they have a different sort of water there, and tea specifically blended to brew well in it. I remember understanding how the Scots felt about tea after a day-long tour, including several considerable walks, through the Orkneys in March; we landed at a farmhouse for "tea," meaning a full meal, at 5 p.m. and were first given a mug of milky hot tea. I quaffed it down into my grateful tummy and its warmth and goodness and yes hit of caffeine slowly infused me to the very fingertips and toes and made me feel like a complete and basically good person once again. The dinner itself, served just after I drained the mug, was stodgy and good and almost an afterthought; I was already sustained by the time I swallowed the last mouthful of tea.

Garden of Eden on 14th Street carries some teas from Harney & Sons, one of the few companies I've found to offer a variety of  real black teas (I am tired of weak old decaf black tea, especially when it's prettied up with some bergamot and called "decaf Earl Grey") that have been decaffeinated through the carbon dioxide process, which is much less toxic and preserves delicate flavors better than the ethyl acetate process. As of September 2011 Harney & Sons is offering a decaf Assam, a Darjeeling, and a Ceylon, and provides these in $2 sample packs at their website. I am in the process of trying them all.

I am sensitive enough to caffeine that I can only have a cup of regular tea before noon and not compromise my sleep that night. Harney & Sons offers so many interesting blends of full-caffeine black tea, though, that I added half a dozen sample packs to my recent order of decaf teas. I am going to make myself a different cup each morning and report in detail so I can share them with you, my dear readers (all three of you), and make a record I can refer to in the future.