In case there is an impression that I sit around drinking only good tea, let the record show that I drink my fair share of foul liquids. In the interest of not turning the site into a rant I have gathered some of the worst offenders into one post. Some are bad teas but some are just teas that do not appeal to my palate.
This first tea is probably the worst of the lot so let’s just get it over and done with. It is a pu-ehr that was stupidly bought by me in a supermarket in France. The dried leaf of this tea has off-notes that is a mix of rancid and tar. If the aroma of the dried leaf is so strong it doesn’t bode well for the liquor but I brewed it anyway. It is undrinkable and I mean undrinkable in the sense of I’m afraid to put the dried leaves into the compost-bin in case it contaminates the compost and I end up eating carrots next year that taste like this tea. As pu-ehr goes, it wasn’t at all expensive (I think around €7-8) but I hate to think of someone who normally buys black tea deciding to experiment with this loose leaf pu-ehr. I can see them now mentally filing pu-ehr into the same category as cod liver oil.
The second offender also involves pu-ehr but in this instance it is more subjective. I very rarely drink flavoured tea and I cannot imagine a situation where I would pick up a packet of lemon pu-ehr and hand over cash for its purchase. I’ve come to the conclusion that it was a a free sample that I picked up somewhere. It tastes unsurprisingly of lemon but it is artificial and dull and is just so wrong.
This next one is completely subjective and I’m sure plenty of people would like it. I visited Nigiro Tea last year when I was in South Africa to buy some of their famous “Orange & Spices” rooibos which is flavoured with cloves, cardamom, cinnamon and orange. I could have cried when they told me that they were all out and would not be restocking until the following week. I wanted to buy one of their rooibos teas to take home so the shop assistant recommended the caramel rooibos. My conspiracy theory says that she knew I was flying out the next day and figured that the chances of me calling back to complain and return any tea were low so she sold me the dud tea that wasn’t selling. The less paranoid side of me says that some people might actually like this sickly sweet blend.
The Immune Boost from Tea Palace is next on the list. It has a nice list of ingredients: orange peel, ginger, echinacea and ginseng but the taste is bitter and unpleasant. This tea usually ends up in a competition with Lemsip for the award of worst tasting medicinal fluid. In case my taste buds were altered by being sick, I tried to drink this when I was well again but the outcome is the same. It wasn’t bought with flavour in mind but my immune system will have to do without this particular boost.
And finally, cold infusions. Yesterday seemed like a good day to embrace the concept of cold infusion after Met Éireann announced that it was the hottest day in Ireland for seven years. I’m still a little bewildered at the idea of of making tea from cold water but I was ready to be the early adopter and started with a green tea/rooibos/lemon myrtle mixture. It doesn’t taste like green tea or rooibos. It is just water with a dull hint of citrusy flavour. I could drink this as a water replacement but definitely not as a tea replacement so after being so open-minded in the build-up to the tasting, I have made the snap decision that cold infusions are not for me.
It is difficult to avoid the occasional cup of bad tea but most of the incidents above could have been avoided by sticking to my guiding principles of tea-buying 😉
- Don’t expect to find good quality loose leaf tea in supermarkets
- Don’t fall for the sales pitch/taste before you buy
- Tea is not a medicine
- Tea needs to be made with hot water
Last summer, I was lucky enough to meet one of the scientists behind molecular gastronomy, Hervé This. I also attended his session at the Euroscience Open Forum entitled “Science and the future of cuisine” where he (along with Mark Post and Bill Yosses) discussed molecular cuisine and the new trend in scientific cooking called note-by-note cuisine. The session was full of fascinating examples of this new cuisine but also covered the practicalities of sustaining the human race by “creating” vegetables and meat in the lab. It was an unforgettable session and tasting the chocolate mousse that was produced without cream or eggs sealed the deal!
In particular though, it drew my attention to the application of science for understanding taste and flavour so when I attended the World Tea Expo a few weeks ago, I was excited to hear Virginia Utermohlen (Cornell University) and Renée Senne talking about their scientific approach to pairing food with tea. Virginia started with the basics of taste and flavour and discussed how the chemicals in tea bind to receptors in our mouths and nose. The session then focussed on the effect that food has on the taste of tea – how some foods will mute the taste of tea while others will enhance it. I was expecting the session to be based around a molecular matching approach but Virginia’s approach was mostly based on trigeminal receptors (for heat and coolness). Cinnamon and mint were used to illustrate the power of these receptors. We were each given a cinnamon sweet which is considered to be “heat” on a taste/temperature scale so it gives a sense of warmth after binding to its receptors. After the taste had developed we took the sweet out of our mouth and replaced it with a mint. The “coolness” of the mint turns off the heat receptors and gives a sense of cold when it binds to its own receptors so the cinnamon taste was completely replaced with mint. After the mint was removed the heat receptors become active again and the heat of the cinnamon came back as residual cinnamon in the mouth was picked up.
From there, we went on to apply the model to Black (hot), Oolong (warm) and Green (cold) tea. The general premise was to use food of similar heat or coolness together to avoid unpleasant tastes and to allow the tea and the food to complement each other and enhance each others flavours. So Oolong (warm) could not be mixed with Cardamom (hot) because the hot spice would mute the taste of the warm drink. Crème fraiche going well with Mexican food is an example where flipping hot and cold can result in a positive effect. It makes sense to some extent but still didn’t clear up some of the well-known anomalies of molecular matching (e.g. strawberries clashing with black tea and sugar clashing with green tea). It is an interesting model to consider alongside other food pairing methods and certainly goes a long way to explaining why I like my chilli-chocolate with black tea.
I’m having a lot of problems with Internet access over here so I won’t be able to post about the World Tea Expo until I’m back later this week. Below is an article from the New York Times that I have been meaning to post for a little while. It is similar to the Leadbeater pamphlets I disucssed in March about the negative consequences of tea drinking.
Until 2000, Nepal’s tea exports accounted for only about 150,000 kg per annum. However, due to liberalisation, the Nepalese tea industry has witnessed an exponential rise in tea exports in the last ten years. At present, Nepal produces approximately 18 million kilograms of tea per annum on an area of 18,149 hectares. The climate, soil and unpolluted air in Nepal are said to be ideal for tea and production is incentivised through government subsidies for machinery. CTC manufacturing accounts for 87% of production. The remaining 13% of Nepalese orthodox tea has a reputation for being outstanding.
I received some tea samples last week from a Nepalese colleague who was kind enough to bring some back from his travels. There were a number of samples but one in particular caught my eye: a first flush SFTGFOP Black tea. As a first flush it was probably picked sometime in March or April and these teas are generally a milder and gentler tea than the leaves that are plucked later in the year.
The leaves are short and wiry and although the leaves are mostly brown you can see from the photo the white buds and some partially oxidised green leaves. The smell of the dry tea is strong and grassy.
Preparation: To prepare this tea, I put 3g of the tea in a gaiwan. After rinsing the leaves, I add the boiling water for 30 seconds but I felt it needed a little longer so I left it for about 40 seconds.
The first cup is sweet-smelling, light yellow and the taste is crisp and light with that very distinctive musky taste. Pungent is a word that suits this tea well (especially the second and third steeping) but not pungent in the usual sense of overpowering sourness but softly pungent as an interesting background that deepens the taste. This tea held well for six steepings with increasing steeping durations each time.
Among the rest of the samples is an Autumn SFTGFOP and I’m looking forward doing a comparison taste in the coming days.
I’ve been tasting a lot of black tea over the past couple of weeks but before I start talking TGFOP and BOP, I thought it would be worthwhile to have a reference article to go through one of the most common grading systems for black tea. The grading system has four separate scales that are based around the size of the leaf. Size is not directly correlated to quality but it is used as an indicator.
Whole leaf – the leaf remains intact during production (not broken or torn)
- SFTGFOP – Special, Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
- FTGFOP – Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
- TGFOP – Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
- GFOP – Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
- FOP – Flowery Orange Pekoe
- FP – Flowery Pekoe
- OP – Orange Pekoe
Broken leaf – the leaf has been torn or broken
- GFBOP – Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe
- GBOP – Golden Broken Orange Pekoe
- FBOP – Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe
- BOP – Broken Orange Pekoe
- BPS – Broken Pekoe Souchong
Fannings are broken pieces of tea that have a granular texture. The small pieces mean that they release their taste and colour quickly, which makes them suitable for teabags.
- FBOPF – Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings
- BOPF – Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings
- FOF – Flowery Orange Fannings
- GOF – Golden Orange Fannings
- PF – Pekoe Fannings
Dust is a powder tea that is smaller in size than fannings.
- OPD – Orange Pekoe Dust
- BOPD – Broken Orange Pekoe Dust
- PD – Pekoe Dust
- D – Dust
CTC stands for Crush Tear Curl and is a modern manufacturing method where the tea leaf is chopped to small uniform pieces while it is being oxidised to black tea. This gives small granular pellets. There is a separate grading system for CTC tea that is also broken down into Broken Leaf, Fannings and Dust.
A few notes on the terms:
Orange – Orange does not refer to the citrus fruit or to an orange flavour. It comes from “House of Orange” which was the royal Dutch family where the finest teas were presented in the 1600s.
Tippy refers to the proportion of buds in the tea
Flowery mean that larger leaves as well as buds are present
I bought this Da Hong Pao (year & season unknown) at the Berliner Teesalon nearly 4 weeks ago but only got around to tasting it last weekend.
This Oolong tea is produced in the Wuyi mountains of Fujian, China. See previous post on Da Hong Pao for the legend associated with this tea. Strip-style Oolongs like this one are unique to China and are easy to spot in a line-up because of their dark colour and stemless twisted leaves.
Preparation (see post here about steeping): To prepare this tea, I put 5g of the tea in a warmed clay teapot. After rinsing the leaves, I add 150ml of water that is just below boiling (when it makes the rumbling sound) and let it rest for 30 seconds. The leaves are not as dark as this type of Oolong would normally be and the tea is a golden yellow on the first steeping. The second and third steeping are darker but never get to the deep amber that would be expected from heavy roasting. There is an earthy smell and definite sweetness in the taste. It is not unpleasant to drink but it lacks the full bodied, rich peaty flavour that this type of tea should deliver. I steeped this tea five times, increasing the steeping durations each time.
The tea €15 for 50g and I consider that too expensive for the quality of this tea.
This Da Hong Pao or Royal Red Robe is an Oolong tea, produced in the Wuyi mountains of Fujian, China (a Unesco World Heritage Site).
There are a couple of legends associated with this tea. One of them involves an Emperor of the Ming Dynasty who was travelling with his ill mother. The Emperor’s mother was cured by the leaves of the tea bushes that were growing on a cliff of the Wuyi mountain and in gratitude, the Emperor sent red robes to cover the tea bushes. Hence the name Royal Red Robe. It is believed that three of these original bushes still survive today in the Wuyi mountain and so these bushes were insured in 2006 for $14,000,000. Tea has not been produced from these bushes for some time but when it was, it was reserved for the select few. On occasion, some went for auction. In 2002, 20g of first generation Da Hong Pao apparently sold for $21,700 (source).
Clearly this is not that tea that I have! Cuttings have been taken from the original bushes to produce similar ancestral teas. The quality of the teas varies but the best grades are still expensive. The one that I have was a gift so I don’t know how much it cost but I hope it wasn’t too much because it was clear from the foreign matter and broken leaves (especially after steeping) that this is a low grade. I don’t know the year or harvest period of this tea.
Wuyi Oolongs are darker with ~80% oxidation. They are earthier than other Oolongs and give a deeper colour after steeping. It is strip-style (as opposed to ball-rolled) so it is not packed as tightly as the Tieguanyin that I spoke about previously.
Preparation (see post here about steeping): To prepare this tea, I put 5g of the tea in a warmed clay teapot. After rinsing the leaves, I add 150ml of water that is just below boiling (when it makes the rumbling sound) and let it rest for 30 seconds. This tea is brown-red in color and has a deep earthy and nutty smell. The second and third steeping are deeper and darker than the first but not by much. I get six steepings from this tea with the steeping time increasing for each one.
This tea came from Beijing Tong Ren Tang on Shaftsbury Road, London. Because it was a present, I don’t know how much it cost but I wouldn’t be paying any more than about £12 for 100g of this grade.
I seem to be on an Oolong kick at the moment and this Ti Kuan Yin (aka Iron Goddess or Tieguanyin) is my tea-of-the-minute. I love it because it has a clean, fresh taste and sweet after-taste that is both strong and gentle at the same time. This tea is a variety of Oolong tea and comes from Fujian Province in China (this type of tea is also produced in Taiwan). Judging by the look and colour, the one I have is not a high grade Tieguanyin but it still gives a good idea why this tea is so popular. Apart from the taste, I like seeing the dark green semiball-rolled leaves expand out after it has steeped a few times but again, because this is not a high grade the leaves are chewy and broken rather than full green leaves when it is steeped.
Tieguanyin (5g) before and after steeping
This Tieguanyin is described as “old style” and is darker so it had medium to heavy oxidation (oxidation being the process that causes the tea leaves to turn brown).
Amber colour of the second brew of Tieguanyin
Preparation: To prepare this tea, I put 5g of the tea in a warmed clay teapot (one that I keep for Oolongs). I add a little water that is just below boiling (when it makes the rumbling sound) to rinse the leaves. This water is poured off and disposed of, not drank. Then I add about 175ml of the hot water which is about the size of the teapot and let it rest for 30 seconds. This is the first brew and is pale yellow in color and has that lovely sweet smell but the second and third steeping are even better with the colour turning to a deeper amber. I usually leave these to steep for about 40 seconds each. The steeping time increases for each subsequent steeping and I find that I can get 4-5 steepings from this tea. The taste is clear and refreshing with a deeply sweet aftertaste.
If you don’t have a clay teapot or a gaiwan, don’t worry. Steeping this tea works just as well with a brew basket but if ever there is a tea that can’t be used with a metal tea ball, it is this one. The leaf expands so impressively, it would be a real shame to keep it in a confined space.
I bought this tea from Tea Palace, London and it was a reasonable £10 for 100g.
I was setting up the categories for this tea blog and it got me thinking about the neatness of the tea classes. There are six classes or categories of tea (green, white, yellow, oolong, black and pu-erh) and I still find it fascinating (and handy now) that each of the thousands of different teas that are out there can fit into one of those six categories. Better again, all tea comes from the leaves of a single species of plant: Camellia sinensis.
Here are the categories that I have for the blog so far:
- Black – almost fully-oxidised and mostly produced in India (Assam and Darjeeling), Kenya, Sri Lanka and China. E.g. Keemun, Zhenshan Xiaochung (lapsang souchong).
- Green – teas such as sencha, Matcha, Gunpowder, Longjing, Taiping Houkui that have had minimal oxidation and kept the green color of the leaves. Predominantly from China, Japan and Korea.
- Oolong – partially oxidised and complicated in production, this type includes Da Hong Pao (red robe) and Tieguanyin. Produced in China and Taiwan.
- Pu-erh – post-fermented tea from China and called ‘black tea’ in China. Comes as sheng (raw) or shou (cooked). My favourite!
- White – made from the buds of the Camellia sinensis and very lightly processed it includes bai mudan (white peony) and Baiho Yinzhen (silver needles).
- Yellow – these teas are not easy to find here so this category won’t be used too much to start with but it didn’t seem right to leave it out.
- Buying tea & storage: looking at where to get good tea and how to store it or age it.
- Tisanes: This will cover all the herbal drinks that are sometimes referred to as tea but are herbal infusions or herbal teas. This covers peppermint, chamomile, ginger, fennel etc.
- Rooibos & Honeybush: Technically these are tisanes but they get their own category because I love them so much!
- Out and About: This is where I post about going for afternoon tea or lunch to see what the tea is like out there.
I’m sure there are plenty more categories that I’ll need to add as I go along but theses will do for a starting point.