Glenburn Estate First Flush Darjeeling
Glenburn Estate First Flush Darjeeling
First flush Darjeeling
Steeped a scant ninety seconds
Puts champagne to shame
Champagne, Tequila, Darjeeling, and Dark Tea
If you make a carbonated white wine, it’s called a “sparkling wine,” unless you are producing it in the Champagne region of France. Then, and only then, should it be called Champagne. I say “should” because there are a number of countries that didn’t sign (or don’t honor) the treaties involved, but that’s a whole different blog post.
The same applies to beverages made from distilling blue agave cactus. If you are in the Mexican state of Jalisco — or designated portions of certain other states — you may call that beverage Tequila. Otherwise, you have made mezcal.
The theory behind these distinctions is not so much the strict corporate trademark enforcement that governs most usage of names in the U.S. It is more a question of terroir. If you were to take two cuttings from the same grape vine and plant one in Napa Valley, California and the other in the Rhine Valley of Germany, you would get different wines from the two vines. Terroir describes the effect that the soil, weather, drainage, and related geographical factors have on the resulting taste of the beverage, whether it be wine or tea.
Darjeeling tea is often called the Champagne of tea (this appellation is usually reserved for first flush Darjeeling tea, but we’ll ignore that distinction for the moment). This little factoid has little to do with the subject of the article, but does make for a marvelous segue from alcoholic beverages to teas, n’est pas?
Like Champagne and Tequila, Darjeeling refers not only to a particular style of tea, but to the origin of that tea: the Darjeeling district of West Bengal, India. Darjeeling tea is unique because of its terroir, but also because of the varietal of the tea plant that they use. Most tea grown in India comes from Camellia sinensis var assamica (the varietal native to India), but Darjeeling tea comes from Camellia sinensis var sinensis (the varietal native to China). Combining the terroir of West Bengal with the flavor of the Chinese tea plant produces the tea we’ve all come to know and love.
And, finally, we get to dark tea
Another geographically-named tea style is pu-erh (also spelled pu’er or puer), named for the town in the Yunnan province of China where the style originated. Only recently has the tea industry really started using the more generic name of “dark tea” to refer to fermented (as opposed to oxidized) teas.
There are two ways to make pu-erh: sheng and shu (also spelled shou).
SHENG (a.k.a. raw or green pu-erh) is the more prized by collectors. The tea is stored in a slightly damp humidity-controlled environment and allowed to slowly ferment. It’s generally not considered ready to drink for years after being picked. Shengs have the same vegetal flavors and aromas as a good Chinese green tea, but with very complex earthy undertones.
SHU (a.k.a. ripe or cooked or black pu-erh) gets a bacterial “kick-start” to the fermentation process, so it’s ready to drink within a matter of months instead of years. Shu pu-erh requires very little steeping time (I’ve spoken to producers that recommend as little as ten seconds), and many pu-erh drinkers start with a “wash,” where you add boiling water, swirl for a few seconds, and pour it off before doing a “real” steeping. Shu pu-er tends to be extremely earthy, with a “composty” undertone. The flavor profile is even richer and deeper than a strong black tea (often reminiscent of a good Keemun), but with very little astringency.
There are several common shapes of pu-erh cakes, including rectangular bricks, bird-nest shapes (“tuo cha”), and flat disks (“beeng cha”).
The standard size for a beeng cha (like the one pictured above, which I’ll be sampling and writing about soon) is 357 grams, although they can be found in smaller sizes as well. I’ve found several suppliers for 100g beeng chas lately, which is a more affordable alternative for someone new to dark teas or someone sampling a new variety.
Tuo chas, on the other hand, are available in a wide variety of sizes usually centered around 80-120g. Mini tuo chas have become quite common. Each is a single serving of tea, roughly 5g.
Bricks can be found in a variety of sizes as well.
Something new (to me, anyway) is the log-shaped dark tea. My wife, Kathy, and I found these at the World Tea Expo (the big annual industry trade show for tea people) a couple of weeks ago. The ones we purchased for our tea bar are logs about 3.625 kilos (8 pounds), 25 inches long by 5 inches in diameter. We’re selling a single log in its bamboo wrapping with a canvas carry tote for $99.99, but most people will be more interested in slices taken from the log.
In the picture below, Kathy and I are posing with what the tea grower calls the world’s largest log of dark tea. If it puts the size of that tea log in perspective, I am 6’5″ tall (195 cm) not counting the hat and boots. Not having a spare thousand dollars laying around, we didn’t buy that one!
It’s Always Tea Time in India: Stop 3 on the World Tea Tasting Tour
India: the world’s second-largest producer of tea. Our third stop on the tasting tour explored the world of Indian estate teas, focusing on three large and well-known tea regions in the country: Darjeeling, Assam, and Nilgiri. Red Lodge Books & Tea imports directly from estates in Darjeeling and Assam. We compared single-source estate teas (think single-malt Scotch) from Glenburn, Khongea, and Tiger Hill estates to a blended 2nd-flush Darjeeling using tea from Marybong, Lingia, and Chamong estates.
We also explored the rich history of tea in India, from the British East India Company through the modern independent tea industry, and looked at the rating system used for Indian teas, which I wrote about last month here on “Tea With Gary”
The teas we tasted were:
- 1st Flush Darjeeling FTGFOP-1 — Glenburn Estate
- Organic 2nd Flush Darjeeling — Marybong, Lingia & Chamong Estates
- Autumn Crescendo Darjeeling FTGFOP-1 — Glenburn Estate
- Green Darjeeling — Glenburn Estate
- Assam Leaf — Khongea Estate
- Nilgiri FOP Clonal — Tiger Hill Estate
As I mentioned above, India is the 2nd largest producer of tea in the world, but 70% of their tea is consumed domestically, so they don’t play as big a role in the export market as countries like Kenya.
Darjeeling is the northernmost district in North Bengal. Of the 1,842,000 people who live there, over 52,000 make their living through tea. Darjeeling tea, often called the Champagne of Teas, is made from Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, the Chinese varietal of the tea plant, unlike tea from most of the rest of India, which is made from their native Camellia sinensis var. assamica.
Despite the generalization that black tea is always 100% oxidized (often incorrectly called “fermented”), most Darjeeling black teas are, like oolongs, not completely oxidized. While Darjeeling is known mostly for its black tea, there are oolongs and green teas produced there.
To be called “Darjeeling,” the tea must be produced at one of the 87 tea gardens (estates) in the Darjeeling district. Alas, the majority of tea sold with that name is not actually Darjeeling. Each year, the district produces about 10,000 tonnes of tea, and 40,000 tonnes show up for sale on the global market. In other words, 3/4 of the “Darjeeling” tea in the stores isn’t Darjeeling! That’s why we choose reputable suppliers at our store, buying most of it directly from the estate.
Darjeeling tea changes dramatically by the picking season, which is why we chose three different black Darjeelings for this tasting.
1st Flush Darjeeling FTGFOP-1
The first tea we tasted was a first-flush Darjeeling from the Glenburn Estate, where we get most of our Darjeeling teas. Glenburn was started by a Scottish tea company in 1859, but has now been in the Prakash family for four generations. The estate is 1,875 acres (with 700 under tea), and produces 275,000 pounds of tea per year. They are located at 3,200 feet altitude and get 64-79 inches of rain per year. Glenburn employs 893 permanent workers, plus temporary workers during the picking season.
2nd Flush “Muscatel” Darjeeling
Our next tea was an organic 2nd flush blend by Rishi, using Darjeeling teas from Marybong, Lingia & Chamong Estates. It was specifically blended to bring out the characteristic “muscatel” flavor and aroma associated with second-flush Darjeelings.
Autumn Crescendo Darjeeling FTGFOP-1
For the third tea, we went back to Glenburn and selected an autumn-picked tea. Unlike the first two, we steeped this using full boiling water for three minutes, bringing out the undertones one might otherwise miss.
To wrap up the Darjeeling teas, we tasted a green Darjeeling from last fall. It’s an interesting hybrid of Chinese varietal and processing methodology blended with Indian terroir.
Assam is a state in northeast India with a population of over 31 million and an area of over 30,000 square miles. If Darjeeling is the champagne of tea, then Assam would be the single malt Scotch of tea. Hearty and malty, this lowland-grown tea comes from the assamica varietal of the tea plant.
Assam Leaf Tea
The Assam tea that we tasted is from the Khongea Estate, which has 1,200 acres of land with 1,100 of that under tea. Sitting at 300 feet altitude, the estate gets 150-200 inches of rain per year, making drainage very important. They employ 1,202 permanent workers (again, more during picking), and produce 2,640 pounds of tea per year.
Since Assam tea is frequently used in breakfast blends, we tasted this one with nothing added and then with milk, as most English tea drinkers (and many Indian tea drinkers) prefer.
Nilgiri is the westernmost district of the state of Tamil Natu. It is smaller (950 square miles) and less populated (735,000 people) than Darjeeling, and quite high elevation, with tea growing between 6,500 and 8,500 feet altitude.
Tiger Hill Nilgiri FOP Clonal
The tea that we chose from Nilgiri comes from the Tiger Hill Estate in the Nilgiris (the “Blue Mountains” for which the district is named). They have 640 acres under cultivation, almost all of which is “clonal,” meaning that it was grafted onto other rootstock from a few mother plants. Tiger Hill has been producing tea since 1971.
This was the third stop on our World Tea Tasting Tour, in which we explore the tea of China, India, Japan, Taiwan, England, South Africa, Kenya, and Argentina. Each class costs $5.00, which includes the tea tasting itself and a $5.00 off coupon that can be used that night for any tea, teaware, or tea-related books that we sell.
For a full schedule of the tea tour, see my introductory post from last month.
Far Too Good For Ordinary People
Part of the fun of the tea business is the names. The names of the teas themselves are wonderful — from classics like Iron Goddess of Mercy to house blends like Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey — but the industry terminology is fun as well. Let’s take the “orange pekoe” grading system used for black teas from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and India.
I can’t count the number of times someone has come into the tea bar telling me they like flavored teas. “You know, something like that Orange Pekoe stuff.”
“Actually,” I have to explain, “that’s not a style of tea, but a grade. And it has no flavorings at all. Nope. No orange in it.”
What I generally don’t go on to explain is how that whole pekoe grading system works. Let’s start with the words “orange” and “pekoe.” A pekoe is a tea bud, the unopened leaf at the very tip of a branch. A pekoe tea, then, would contain the buds and smallest leaves adjacent to the buds. To further confuse matters, the word “pekoe” in grading tea doesn’t mean quite the same thing as it means when speaking of tea buds. We’ll get to that in a moment.
“Orange,” as I mentioned above, has nothing to do with fruit. What it does actually mean is open to debate. It could refer to the color of the oxidized leaves. It could refer to the color of the brewed tea. It could refer to the Dutch royal family (the House of Orange). All that really matters is that in tea grading, any whole-leaf black tea qualifies as an Orange Pekoe.
So what about all those other letters? The joke in the tea business is that FTGFOP stands for “Far Too Good For Ordinary People.” In reality, it stands for “Fine (or Finest) Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe.” Referring to a grade of tea as the “finest” isn’t good enough, of course, so there are actually several grades above that. Here are the basic grades:
- OP (Orange Pekoe): A whole-leaf black tea.
- FOP (Flowery Orange Pekoe): Long leaves with some tips (pekoes).
- GFOP (Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe): An FOP with more tips.
- TGFOP (Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe): A GFOP with a whole lot of tips.
- FTGFOP (Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe): Traditionally the highest-quality grade of black tea.
- SFTGFOP (Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe): Sorry, we needed one more grade.
For the true connoisseur, a grading system can never have fine enough gradations, so you can also elevate each of these grades another half-point by adding the number “1” after it. Thus, despite the industry joke, there are three grades of tea better than FTGFOP (FTGFOP-1, SFTGFOP, and SFTGFOP-1).
Let me reinforce an important point here: this grading system is used only for black teas, and only in a few countries. China, for example, rarely grades its teas using this system, although Kenya is doing more of it as their teas increase in quality.
Are there lower grades?
I thought you’d never ask.
The majority of tea consumed in the U.S. and U.K. is in teabags. In a traditional teabag, there’s little room for the hot water to circulate or the leaves to expand as they absorb water. The solution? Break those leaves into smaller pieces. That exposes more of the surface area of the leaf to water and allows more tea (by weight) to fit into a smaller area.
OP-grade teas use whole leaves. There is a series of grades below OP that include the letter B for “Broken.” BOP (Broken Orange Pekoe), FBOP, GBOP, and so on. There are also a couple of broken grades below BOP, including BP (Broken Pekoe) and BT (Broken Tea).
So that’s what’s used in teabags? Nope. Let’s drop another grade.
After the processing facility has sorted out all of the Pekoe and Broken Pekoe grades, what’s left is known as “fannings.” Grades like PF (Pekoe Fannings), FOF (Flowery Orange Fannings), and TGFOF (Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Fannings). These are the grades used in most decent-quality teabags (high-end teabags may use whole-leaf teas, typically in a sachet-style bag).
“Decent-quality teabags?” I hear you cry. “Are you implying there’s another grade below fannings?”
Yes. Yes I am.
The smallest-sized particles of tea — too small to be fannings — are called “dust.” There are different grades of dust, of course, depending on the tea leaves they come from. You may encounter PD (Pekoe Dust), GD (Golden Dust), FD (Fine Dust), and others. Typically, though, grades like that don’t make it onto commercial packaging.
So these lower grades suck?
No, I didn’t say that.
Fannings from an extraordinary tea will produce a much better drink than whole leaves from a mediocre tea. There are a lot of factors to take into consideration, but the number one factor is your own preferences. As I’ve said before on this blog, I’m not a tea Nazi. It won’t hurt my feelings a bit if you prefer the cheapest grade of Lipton teabags to my shop’s whole-leaf FTGFOP-1 First Flush Darjeeling. In fact, it would be quite a waste of money to buy a tea you don’t like.
In a way, buying tea that’s highly-graded on the pekoe system is like buying organic. What it really tells you is that you’re dealing with a legitimate tea producer that cares enough about their product to pick it right and have it graded by experts.
Seasons of Tea
As my tea bar does more direct tea buying (as opposed to buying through distributors), I have an opportunity to taste some absolutely fascinating teas. As I tasted some estate-grown Darjeelings the other day, I was reminded of how much difference the picking time makes on the character of the tea.
The three teas on the right side of the picture above are all Darjeeling teas from the Glenburn estate. The terroir is identical. It’s the same varietal of Camellia sinensis var sinensis (the Chinese tea plant) — all FTGFOP1 clonals. They are all black teas. They were steeped for the same amount of time using the same water at the same temperature. I used the same amount of tea leaf for each cup. What’s the difference?
- The light golden tea second from left is a first-flush Darjeeling, picked on March 20th. At that time of year, the spring rains are over and the tea plants are covered with fresh young growth. The tea is very light in color, and the flavor is mild but complex with a touch of spiciness. Although all four of the teas in the picture were steeped 2-1/2 minutes, I actually prefer my first flush Darjeelings steeped for a considerably shorter time (although everyone has different opinions on that). I’m drinking a cup as I write this, and it’s just about right at a minute and a half.
- The amber cup to the right of the first-flush is a second-flush, picked in June. The drier summer climate produces a heartier cup of tea, with a flavor often described as “muscatel.” There is more body and a bit more astringency as well.
- The darkest cup of tea on the far right is called an Autumnal Darjeeling. This one was picked on November 10th. By then, the monsoons are over and the new growth on the tea plants has matured. An autumn-picked Darjeeling will be darker in color, stronger in flavor, and fuller-bodies, but without as much of the spicy notes Darjeelings are known for.
These seasonal differences account for massive differences in caffeine content as well. Early in the season, tea plants will have more caffeine concentrated in the new growth, which is what’s picked for the delicate high-end teas. The data that Kevin Gascoyne presented at World Tea Expo last year showed a 300% increase in caffeine between two pickings at different times of year in the same plantation.
Comparing Darjeeling teas can be difficult, as much of the “Darjeeling” tea on the market isn’t authentic. According to this 2007 article, the Darjeeling region produces 10,000 tonnes of tea per year, but 40,000 tonnes is sold around the world. Even if you don’t consider the local consumption, that means 3/4 of the tea sold as Darjeeling is grown somewhere else. That’s why it’s so important to buy from a trusted source.
When selecting teas, we tend to look first at the production style (black, green, white, oolong, pu-erh), and then for the origin (a Keemun black tea from China is quite different from an Assam black tea from India). As consumers, we rarely know the exact varietal of the plant or the picking season, but those factors are every bit as important to the final flavor.
I suppose the main message of this article is that you can’t judge a tea style on a single cup. You may love autumnal Darjeeling and dislike first-flush. You may enjoy a second flush from Risheehat and not the one from Singbulli.
Keurig K-Cups and Tea
We checked into the Lake Hotel in Yellowstone last week for the latest stop on my book signing tour. As usual, I schlepped in all of my tea stuff so I could have a decent cup in the morning: electric kettle, teapot, a selection of loose-leaf tea.
Frequently, hotels have coffee makers in the room (unless you’re in Las Vegas), but I don’t like having my tea water taste like coffee, so I don’t use them.
In this room, however, was a Keurig® B130 In-Room Brewing System, the kind that uses the single-serving K-Cups. The sampling of K-Cups in the room included two regular coffees, two decaf coffees, one tea, and one herbal blend. I decided to give their Celestial Seasonings English breakfast tea a try. For some reason, Celestial Seasonings decided not to capitalize “English.” Because of my Scottish heritage, that makes me smile, but that’s irrelevant to the subject at hand.
Following their instructions, I took the sealed cup, which had its lid puffed out from the altitude, and inserted it in the machine. When I closed it (puncturing the top & bottom of the cup), the top of the coffee maker popped open. I added a cup of water, set the mug in its place, and looked for adjustments. Finding none, I just pressed “brew.”
The cup was ready surprisingly fast (one point for the machine), with much hissing and burbling. And it tasted like … your basic cup of breakfast tea in a restaurant. I don’t take milk or sugar in my tea, so I use shorter steeping times than the British generally do. Unfortunately, there are no adjustments on this machine, so I got a stronger, more astringent brew than I wanted. Minus one point.
I couldn’t taste any coffee at all in my tea — and I am pretty sensitive to that flavor — so that’s plus one point.
After my wife removed the tea K-Cup and made herself some coffee, I decided to see if I could get a second infusion out of the tea. I carefully lined up the puncture hole on the bottom of the cup and reinserted it. I followed the rest of the process as before, and got a pretty decent second cup. It was weaker than the first, of course, and similar to what you’d get if you reused a tea bag.
Opening the used cup gave some insight into the workings. As you’d expect with a mass-market breakfast tea, they used CTC (crush, tear, curl) processed leaves, broken into quite small pieces. This provides the large surface area needed for the accelerated brewing process Keurig uses.
I understand you can purchase special K-Cups to fill yourself. It would be interesting to play around with whole-leaf teas and tweak the amount of leaf. Unfortunately, since you can’t adjust water temperature, the Keurig would destroy delicate white or green teas, and since you can’t adjust steep times, it would produce bitter oversteeped pu-erh or Darjeeling.
Interestingly, I took a look at the list of tea K-Cups on Keurig’s website, and it does include green and white tea. I’m guessing that their target audience probably uses boiling water in green tea anyway, and doesn’t realize it’s not supposed to taste like that. Most of their 50 selections are black tea, of course, and many are herbal tisanes rather than tea. There are a couple of chai selections there, and I’m guessing those would work.
In conclusion, if you’re looking for a fast, easy way to replicate your basic restaurant-style black tea, the Keurig will work admirably. If you want more than that, it’s a lot cheaper to buy an electric kettle and an IngenuiTEA, and you’ll get much better tea, too. The Keurig Brewer is at heart a coffee maker, and using it for making tea is like driving nails with a wrench: you can do it, but it’s a sub-optimal solution.
A Nice Cup of Tea
On January 12, 1946, the Evening Standard published an essay by George Orwell entitled “A Nice Cup of Tea.” Like almost everyone else in my generation, I had to read his books Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm in school. They told us a lot about society and a lot about English culture, but not much about tea.
Orwell was British, and born in 1903. These two facts tell you a lot about how he viewed tea. I’ve written before about “Tea Nazis,” who believe that their way of preparing tea is the only way to prepare tea, and this essay is a marvelous example of that philosophy in action.
He opens the essay by saying that if you look up “tea” in a cookbook it’s likely to be unmentioned. That was very true in 1946. It is less true now, but even though there are a lot of wonderful books about tea, mainstream cookbooks generally find it unnecessary to describe how to prepare a pot (or a cup) of tea.
Orwell continues by pointing out that tea is a mainstay of civilization in England, yet the “best manner of making it is a subject of violent disputes.” Judging from conversations I’ve had with British friends, I’d have to agree with that. His next paragraph sets the tone for everything that follows:
“When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I find no fewer than eleven outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement, but at least four others are acutely controversial. Here are my own eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden:”
Since in my humble opinion just about everything related to preparing tea is subjective, I’d like to present my own take on Orwell’s eleven rules. Lets look at them one at a time.
“First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea. 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. Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.”
Here, I must vehemently disagree with Mr. Orwell. Perhaps the fact that he was born in India is showing through here. There is excellent tea from China (and Japan and Kenya and Taiwan…). If you want a beverage that will make you feel “wiser, braver or more optimistic,” I would recommend tequila. If you want tea that tastes good, you can find it all over the world.
Incidentally, when Orwell refers to “Ceylonese” tea, he means tea from the country that was called Ceylon when he wrote this essay, but became Sri Lanka when it achieved independence in 1948. We still typically call tea from Sri Lanka “Ceylon” tea.
“Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britannia-ware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse; though curiously enough a pewter teapot (a rarity nowadays) is not so bad.”
He has an excellent point about the small quantities. To me, this means preparing it by the cup rather than by the pot, and there is a lot of excellent teaware available for that purpose. Although china, earthenware, and ceramic teapots do add something to the tea, using plastic or glass pots allows you to watch the tea steep. It also adds (and detracts) nothing to the flavor.
“Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand. This is better done by placing it on the hob than by the usual method of swilling it out with hot water.”
I agree that pre-warming the pot helps to keep the water hot as the tea steeps.
“Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right. In a time of rationing, this is not an idea that can be realised on every day of the week, but I maintain that one strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones. All true tea-lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes — a fact which is recognized in the extra ration issued to old-age pensioners.”
My biggest problem with this “rule” is the statement that “all true tea-lovers not only like their tea strong.” In fact, many tea lovers like a shorter steeping time so that the flavor of the tea isn’t overwhelmed by the bitterness and tannins that come out later in the steep.
“Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot. No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea. In some countries teapots are fitted with little dangling baskets under the spout to catch the stray leaves, which are supposed to be harmful. Actually one can swallow tea-leaves in considerable quantities without ill effect, and if the tea is not loose in the pot it never infuses properly.”
Philosophically, he’s right. Allowing the water to circulate freely through the leaves does improve the infusion process. I do prefer not to consume the leaves (unless I’m drinking matcha), but a proper modern infuser will catch pretty much all of them.
“Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours. Some people add that one should only use water that has been freshly brought to the boil, but I have never noticed that it makes any difference.”
Clearly, Mr. Orwell was aware of only one kind of tea: black. While boiling water is the right way to go for black and pu-erh tea, you get much better results with green and white tea if you use cooler water. I won’t get into the oolong debate at the moment…
The little aside that he snuck in here about freshly-boiled water is perhaps the biggest point of argument I hear from tea lovers. Does your tea really taste different if the water is heated in a microwave instead of being boiled in a teapot? Does the tea taste different if you reboil water that has been boiled before? In a blind taste test, I can’t tell the difference. Perhaps you can.
“Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.”
I confess. I do this.
“Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup — that is, the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfast cup holds more, and with the other kind one’s tea is always half cold — before one has well started on it.”
Your cup is as personal as your clothing or your car. Most of the time, I use a 16-ounce ceramic mug made by a local potter. When I’m trying a new tea, I make the first cup in a glass mug so I can see it better. I typically use a smaller cup for matcha, a bigger one for chai lattes, and a bigger one than that for iced tea.
“Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.”
Unless I’m drinking chai, I do not add milk to my tea. I have made the occasional exception (I actually like milk in purple tea), but I generally prefer to taste the tea, not the milk.
“Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject.
The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.”
When I make chai, I don’t use either of Orwell’s methods. I find that the spices extract better with the lipids in the milk present than they do in water alone. In other words, I heat the milk and add it to the water while the tea is steeping. It changes the flavor considerably.
When I’m adding milk to any other tea, I typically put it in the cup first and then add tea to it.
“Lastly, tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tea-lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt.”
Good point, Mr. Orwell. Now please substitute the word “milk” for “sugar” in this paragraph. Then go back and read rule nine. I don’t sweeten my tea (chai being the exception again — I like some honey in it), but I see nothing wrong with doing so. Adding a bit of sugar is no different than adding a bit of milk.
Oh, and by the way, tea was traditionally prepared in salt water in ancient China. And one of my favorite chai blends does, indeed, contain pepper.
“Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. 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.
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.”
Again, Orwell is speaking only of black tea here. I do not expect bitterness in, for example, a Long Jing Dragonwell green tea. And I would argue that there are a lot of fine black teas that have minimal bitterness: Royal Golden Safari from Kenya, to pick a favorite of mine.
If I had to pick one issue to argue in this essay, it would be that George Orwell considers all tea to be the same (after eliminating the majority of the world’s production by limiting himself to India and Sri Lanka). Even within the world of black tea, there is immense diversity. I don’t use the same preparation methods or expect the same results for a malty Assam tea and a delicate first flush Darjeeling — much less a smoky Chinese lapsang souchong.
My recommendation? Experiment. Try new teas, and try them first without adding milk or sweetener. Use your supplier’s recommended water temperature and steeping time. Taste the tea. THEN decide whether you want to steep it for a shorter or longer time; whether it needs a bit of milk; whether you’d prefer to sweeten it.
The best tea is your favorite tea, prepared just the way you like it.
Tasting purple tea
Today, I received my first shipment of the purple tea that I blogged about back in August. I opened the bag with no preconceptions, as I haven’t read anyone else’s tasting notes.
The leaves look like pretty much any black tea. Not surprising, as the purple tea plant (TRFK306/1) can be prepared using any tea process, and this was oxidized like a traditional (orthodox) black tea. This is a very dense tea. The kilogram bag I purchased was the same size as the half-kilo (500g) bag of Golden Safari (a Kenya black I’ll be writing about soon).
I took a deep whiff, and picked up a slight earthiness to it that isn’t present in the other Kenya black teas I’ve tried. Not as extreme as a shu pu-erh, of course, as there was no fermentation in the process, but enough to distinguish the aroma from a traditional black tea.
Actually, despite my previous comment, I did come in to this with one preconception. Since this is a high-tannin tea, I expected a fair amount of astringency (“briskness,” as Lipton calls it), so I decided to take it easy on the first cup and make it like I make my 2nd-flush Darjeelings: 5 grams of leaves, 16 ounces of water at full boil, and a scant two-minute steep time.
“I did not expect purple, as the anthocyanin that gives purple tea its name doesn’t affect the color of black tea.”
The leaves settled immediately to the bottom of the pot, and I was taken by surprise by the color. I did not expect purple, as the anthocyanin that gives purple tea its name doesn’t affect the color of black tea. But I also didn’t expect the pale greenish tan color that immediately appeared (it later mellowed to a deep black with — you guessed it, a purplish tinge). We don’t have any analyses yet of total antioxidant content, but we know that the anthocyanin does contribute quite a bit.
My first taste of the purple tea was impressive. Rich, complex, and a bit more astringent than you’d expect with only a two-minute brewing time. The earthiness in the aroma comes through subtly in the taste, and there’s a silky mouthfeel that lingers on the back of the tongue.
I figured that there was enough going on in that tea that it could hold up to a second infusion, so I brewed a second cup off of the same leaves. This time I gave it a three-minute steep, and it came out tasting very similar to the first brew, although a bit more pale in color.
“Purple tea is certainly not cheap.”
All in all, I’m pleased and excited to have this new varietal available at the tea bar. Purple tea is certainly not cheap. At $16.00 per ounce, it’s one of the priciest teas on our menu, but I expect it to build a fan base quickly. Our new tea website isn’t quite ready to launch yet (I’ll make a big announcement here when it is), but if you’d like to order some Royal Purple tea, just call the store (406-446-2742) or send an email to gary (at) redlodgebooks (dot) com. We’re ready to ship right away.
UPDATE MAY 2012: Our tea website is up and running, and Royal Purple tea is now available for purchase.
More more information about purple tea, please see my earlier blog post announcing and describing the varietal.
Tea Absolutists (a.k.a. Tea Nazis)
There are a lot of types of tea people. Tea purists, tea snobs, tea ceremonialists, tea sippers, tea guzzlers, tea herbalists, tea totalers (okay — just kidding on that last one). Today’s commentary is on the tea absolutists.
I, like most tea drinkers, have my favorite way of preparing each of my favorite teas. You may well do it differently, and I really don’t care. If you walk into my tea bar and ask for a cup of lapsang souchong, I will make it the way I make lapsang souchong for myself: 1 tbsp of leaves per 16 oz pot, 195-200 degree water, 3:00 steep time, no sweetener or milk. If you then decide that you’d rather use a bit less tea and steep it a bit longer, and perhaps add some stevia and cream, that’s fine with me.
The absolutist, however, doesn’t just have an opinion on how he wants his tea. He has an opinion on how you should have your tea! You see this all the time in books and magazine articles, and on the websites of many tea suppliers. “Use 5 grams of this tea for your 16-ounce pot (because we love mixing metric and English units). Use 195-degree water, and steep for 3:45. Dammit, don’t you dare steep it for 4 minutes or it will become too astringent. And boiling water will scald it. And if you add lemon, you’re a heathen. An uncultured heathen, I tell you!”
The absolutist, however, doesn’t just have an opinion on how he wants his tea. He has an opinion on how you should have your tea!
I am especially amused by the water temperature absolutists. They’ll come into my tea bar and ask if my water is 210-212 degrees. “Well, no,” I explain. “We’re at 5,550 feet altitude. You can’t get water that hot.” They’ll insist that they have to have boiling water, and I’ll explain that water boils at 202 degrees here. Yep, the water is 10 degrees cooler than boiling water at sea level, but by golly it’s still boiling.
I think the absolutist attitude has done much to turn people away from the enjoyment of tea. If someone says they don’t like black tea because it’s too bitter, it’s probably because they’ve been pouring leaves (or dropping bags) into a pot of boiling water and leaving them in there for ten minutes. I’ve had several people who “didn’t like black tea” get very excited about a nice first flush Darjeeling steeped for a scant two minutes. There’s still plenty of flavor, just a tiny bit of astringency, and barely any bitterness.
Darjeeling absolutists are probably starting up their flamethrowers as they read this. “How can you steep it for only two minutes? You’re not getting any flavor out of it!” A quick Google search shows recommendations anywhere from 90 seconds up to 6 minutes for a first flush Darjeeling (I’m one of those 2:00 to 2:15 people), and the majority of them are convinced that their answer is the one and only true answer. If everyone else just followed their procedure, the world would be a happier place.
The correct steeping time for your tea is the steeping time that produces a cup of tea that you like. You. Not me, not the tea expert in the shop down the street, not the guy that wrote that book on your coffee table (or tea table, I suppose). Ditto water temperature. Ditto quantity of leaves. Ditto sweetening. Ditto the type of cup. Ditto lemon, milk, cream, or whatever else you may enjoy putting in your tea.
At our tea bar, we really want people to enjoy the teas we serve. We’re not worried about making it “right,” we’re worried about presenting it well and making it so that our customers enjoy it. It’s very easy to lose track of how long your tea has steeped, so we take care of that for you. We use tea timers and a chart based on our own preferences. But we ask people, how strong do you like it? On their next visit, they may say, “I liked that sencha last time, but it was a bit strong.” So this time, we’ll use a little bit less, and steep for 3:00 instead of the 3:15 that I prefer. Hopefully, the customer will say, “That’s fantastic! Give me a half-pound bag!”
At home, you may prefer delicate porcelain teacups. Here, we use sturdy glass mugs, because they show off the tea well, and they don’t break easily. We keep whole milk, 1% milk, soy milk, and half-and-half at the bar rather than telling customers what we think they should use. We have locally-grown honey, but we also supply sugar and several artificial sweeteners.
When people are trying a new tea, I encourage them to let me make them a cup first, and then take an ounce home to experiment. Sometimes the “guess what I tried” stories I hear later give me ideas for new things to do with tea.
So, tea absolutists, I encourage you to be as anal-retentive as you like when preparing tea for yourself. But lighten up and let everyone else enjoy their tea any way they like. Please?