Sunday, April 17, 2011

Margaret's Hope Darjeeling

With three down and two to go in my Culinary Tea's Darjeeling sampler, I'm a bit concerned I've already reached the point of diminishing returns.  Margaret's Hope is clearly a high quality, excellent tea, but I honestly struggled to find that much of a difference in flavors between this and the Castleton Darjeeling.  Don't get me wrong, this is a fine, super high quality tea, and I'm glad that I'm finally developing a better taste and appreciation for Darjeelings in general.  It's just that while the Soom was distinct and quite different, these last two have been a bit similar.  I have two more to try, the Mim and the Tukdai, so perhaps there will be more variation to be found in the last two samples.

So, then Margaret's Hope Darjeeling is a second flush, FTGFOP tea.  Second flushes typically have more developed flavors, and FTGFOP is fine tippy golden flowery orange pekoe, full leaves composed mostly of the higher quality tips.  Bearing in mind my difficulties with the Castleton, I brewed the Margaret's Hope like an Oolong, at water just under a boil for about three minutes, and met with success.  The tea brewed up a pale brown, with a delicate, clean nose.  The flavors were distinct, as with all the Darjeeling I've tried so far,  and the profile is nicely balanced.  Floral notes predominate, without much of the "Muscat" wine-like note that Darjeeling is most famous for, and also none of the natural crisp smokiness of the Soom.

Margaret's hope is really a high quality cup of tea, but not the most exciting cup I've had, even within the constraints of the Darjeeling area.  It's mellow and clean, with mild astringency and natural dryness.  On the whole, though, I think I'd reach for a quality green or white before this one.  Score:  83 (B-)

Friday, April 15, 2011

Maple Cream tea

Perhaps I should call this post "Maple Tea revisited."  Maple Cream tea is pretty much a loose tea version of last month's review subject, maple tea.  I really enjoyed the maple tea, and figured, a loose version with cream added would be even better.  Surprisingly, the cream didn't add much to the tea.  True, it is loose tea, and so brews up a higher quality cup, with less astringency, but flavorwise, I have to say, it's pretty much the same.  Don't get me wrong, it's a great cup of tea, it's just that in every other case, the addition of cream flavoring makes for an absolutely amazing cup of tea with the addition of sweetness and a velvety texture.  Score:  85 (B)

That may well go on record as my shortest review ever, so I'll throw out the notion of my latest brainstorm.  I've been slowly gathering interest in blending my own teas, and it has occurred to me that all of the basic flavor elements in Talisker, a truly excellent single malt from the Isle of Skye, are notes of particular teas.  We have smoke via Lapsang Souchong, malt and oak via Assam and Keemun, and pepper with Yunnan (aka Dian Hong).  Given my less than amazing success at replicating Irish Breakfast, a fairly basic blend, it may not quite be the amazing cup I hope for, but it should prove an interesting project.  Updates to come.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Irish Breakfast Green

Irish Breakfast green tea is a blend of three green teas from Culinary Teas.  The intent was to create a blended green tea with a strong body and bold flavors, reminiscent of Irish Breakfast tea.  The tea went on special right around St. Patrick's Day, appropriately enough, and I was intrigued by the idea, enough so to give it a shot.  The tea itself is made from three distinct greens:  A Kenyan green, a Hoji-cha Japanese green, and a Gunpowder green.  Each tea brings something to the table; the Kenyan (who knew Kenya produced green tea?) brings a nice solid body, the Hoji-cha a toasty flavor, necessary if we're to emulate true Irish Breakfast, and the Gunpowder a crisp texture and a hint of natural smokiness.

As with all green tea, brewing requires a hair more caution than black...I use briskly steaming (not boiling!) water, and brew for no more than 2 or 3 minutes.  Hotter water or longer brew times run the risk of scorched, bitter tea...I suspect this blend is a bit hardier than some, but still, it pays to be careful.  The tea brews up a nice dark green color, a bit darker than I've come to expect from greens, and has a nice body and a full flavor.  As with all greens and whites, no additions are necessary...milk or sweetener would mask the delicate flavors, and defeat the purpose of drinking high quality tea like this in the first place.

There's definitely a complex and balanced profile.  The Gunpowder brings some nice crispness and the suggestion of smoke to the table, and the Hoji-cha definitely lends a roasty, faintly nutty note that doesn't exactly taste like Irish Breakfast, but is at least reminiscent of it...perhaps in the way rooibos reminds one of true Camella Sinensis tea, but doesn't quite taste like the real thing.  The toasty note remains through the finish, which is mildly astringent and refreshingly clean, as I tend to find with quality greens.  There's none of the hints of fruit or flowers as in some un-oxidized teas, but then, such notes would be out of place here anyway.  So, does it remind me of Irish Breakfast tea?  Sort's perhaps more suggestive of Irish Breakfast than a straight up green version of the stuff.

All in all, not my favorite, but a well executed combination of three teas.  While with black teas I sometimes do favor carefully constructed blends, with greens and whites, I prefer unblended, stand-alone teas, though I really like the concept of Irish Breakfast green, and applaud the effort in creating it.  I would love to try more blends along these lines in the future, but I think I'm even more curious to taste each of these teas on their own.  Score:  80 (B-)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Castleton Darjeeling Second Flush FTGFOP -or - What's with all those letters?

So, what is with all those letters?  FTGFOP means Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe, which is a lot of words to describe high grade tea.  Orthodox tea grading is based on a standard size of Orange Pekoe, which is a small leaf size, rather than a flavor or variant of tea.  In my limited experience, orthodox tea grading is a cumulative system, in that the more descriptors we add, the better the quality of the leaf.  (I may be over simplifying this a bit.)  There are other systems of grading tea, but the old fashioned Orange Pekoe based system is still in use for a lot of high quality teas.

So, FTGFOP Castleton is pretty high grade stuff, and additionally, it comes from a highly regarded estate.  So, it was a bit of a letdown when my first cup was a complete bust.  I brewed the tea at a full boil, like I did with the Soom Darjeeling, and the tea was completely scorched:  burnt, smoky, and flat.  I did some research, and found that brewing Darjeeling is even trickier than I originally thought:  tea from different estates is processed differently, and therefore needs to steep at different temperatures.  So, I gave the Castelton a second go, brewing at a much lower temperature, but it turned out to be too low, and the tea came out weak and bland.

Success came when I treated the Castleton as an Oolong, and brewed the tea with water at just under a boil.  Finally the Castleton was delicate and nuanced, with a nice interplay of flavors: a hint of dry smokiness, mild natural sweetness and a hint of fruit.  The texture is delicate and astringent, and the finish is excellent, leaving a slightly sweet and extremely clean mouthfeel.  This is a very nice tea, but I'm not sure it's quite the cream of the crop, so to speak, that it's reputation claims.  I like it, but I don't quite taste anything that sets it that far above what I've found of Darjeeling thus far.  Then again, perhaps my palate just isn't nuanced enough.  Score:  88 (B+)

Friday, April 8, 2011

a Review, in which we Discuss Baroness Grey Tea, and thereby conclude Earl Grey week

Blends such as Baroness Grey are almost as old as Earl Grey itself.  Lady Grey is a proprietary blend made by Twinings, an old school English tea company, featuring lemon and orange peel in addition to the usual bergamot.  Baroness Grey (note the strikingly similar, yet non-trademark-infringing name) is modeled rather closely after Lady Grey, featuring lemon and Seville orange peel, as well as oil of bergamot.

Even the name of Baroness Grey tea is girly.  It brings to mind ladies sitting in a garden in England, sipping citrusy tea from wee tiny little tea cups with flowers.  Well, we don't roll that way.  I drank this tea from my manly coffee cup, stained with motor oil and sawdust., while discussing cutting down trees and working construction.  Ok, not really; my mug is actually covered with mathematical equations, and I think I actually discussed baby clothes whilst drinking from it.  But I stand by my initial assessment, Baroness Grey is a somewhat frilly tea.  It's standard Earl Grey (a China black and/or Ceylon blend, scented with bergamot) with the addition of lemon and Seville orange peel.  (Seville orange, aka bitter orange, is a variant of the regular orange that is far less sweet, utilized mostly for it's flavorful peel...think quality marmalade.)  The flavor components are similar to the Russian Earl Grey, yet I find I far prefer the bolder, more complex profile of the Russian variant.  Whereas with the Russian Earl Grey, the flavors blend together and complement one another, in the Baroness Grey, the citrus flavors support the bergamot, rather than mingle in the forefront.

Perhaps the least attractive feature of Earl Grey variants is the tendency of bergamot oil to leave a cloying aftertaste.  In the better variants (Cream Earl Grey, Russian Earl Grey, Smoky Earl Grey) there are other notes in the profile that balance out the sticky, somewhat cloying aspect of bergamot.  Here, the citrus takes second fiddle to the bergamot, supporting rather than balancing, and the taste kind of sticks around for a while.  It's not unpleasant, but it's not my favorite.  Score:  78 (B-)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Earl Grey week continues with: What the heck is Rooibos?

Rooibos, sometimes found under the name "red tea," is not tea at all, but rather a wild plant found in Africa.  As with most herbal teas, it is completely caffeine free, a plus for those of us that suffer from insomnia.  Rooibos brews up almost the exact same color as tea, and tastes...similar, I guess, to actual tea.  With herbal teas, I find it's best not to think of them as teas, but as something all their own, so that I'm not disappointed when they don't actually taste like tea.  Rooibos on its own terms is actually quite good; it has a really pleasant natural sweetness, especially when paired with honeybush, a similar plant that grows in South Africa as well that has a natural honey taste.  Rooibos has become more common across the world in recent years, and can now be found in "green" unoxidized varieties as well, though I've yet to try one.

So, Earl Grey rooibos, then, is "red" oxidized rooibos, with the addition of cornflower petals, and mild bergamot.  Although I've already had enough bergamot this week to last me the next year or so, the use here is restrained and mild, which I must say, I appreciate.  The Earl Grey-ness, so to speak, blends really well with the natural sweetness and roast fruit flavor of the rooibos.  Earl Grey rooibos is a middleweight in body, comparable to regular Earl Grey, and unlike true tea, there is really no astringency here.  The finish is quite long, but mostly honey sweetness from the tea, and just a hint of the bergamot and cornflower.

I've tried three different varieties of rooibos (Earl Grey, Bourbon Vanilla, and Chai), and the Earl Grey is my favorite so far.  I really enjoy the blend of bergamot with the naturally sweet tea, and I also like that I can drink it right before bedtime.  In fact, there are claims that rooibos can actually help with sleep problems, but I'd probably file those under unsubstantiated.  Health claims aside, it's easily the best herbal tea I've tried yet, and something I'll likely keep on hand from now on.  Score:  85 (B)

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

чай. Эрл Грей. горячий. - Part Two of Earl Grey week

Earl Grey week continues!  So, first of all, if anybody who speaks or reads Russian ever comes by here, my apologies, all I did was type the words "Tea.  Earl Grey.  Hot." into Google translator, and I'm sure I butchered the job.

Apologies to the Russian speaking population aside, today's review picks up where Cream Earl Grey left off, with another variant on the Earl Grey blend:  Russian Earl Grey.  I first had what I thought was Russian Earl Grey at Mrs. Bridge's, our local tea house.  No offense to their fine establishment, but I think they mislabeled a tea, or perhaps their vendor sent them the wrong tea.  The cup I got was Earl Grey, but the tea was blended with a smoked variant, probably Lapsang.  I didn't question it, smoky Russian Caravan being the only other Russian blend I had actually tried, until I purchased a pouch to try on my own and found it a completely different tea.  After doing some research, I found that Russian Earl Grey is not made from a smoked tea, but there is a common (not Russian) variant called "Smoky Earl Grey" that is.  This must be what I had for that first cup.  It was excellent; I'll have to find that variant online, so I can post a review.

What, then, of Russian Earl Grey?  It turns out to be an Earl Grey blend, flavored with bergamot, Thai lemongrass, and orange peel.  Russia has a fine tea culture, dating back to the 17th century, and features almost exclusively Chinese teas, often flavored.  Tea is brewed in ornate vessels called samovars, and served in ornate glass and metal cups.  I love the look of those cups, and have always wanted one since first seeing them in The Hunt for Red October.  The tea itself is very often flavored; smoke is the key flavor in Russian Caravan, but not the predominate flavoring in other Russian teas, which are often flavored with citrus fruit.  Russian tea was once drank with a spoonful of jam, or whilst holding a lump of sugar between your teeth, though I don't know how widespread this once was, or how common it is today.

So, there isn't any smoke in Russian Earl Grey, but there is lots of citrus, and a nice tea backbone, a blend of Ceylon and China teas.  Russian Earl Grey is quite similar to Baroness Grey, yet another Earl Grey variant, but is sturdier, with bolder flavors.  The orange peel and lemongrass bring really nice citrus notes to the table, sweet, yet some complexity; the lemongrass is an interesting choice, bringing a slightly different flavor than lemon peel might have.  Lemongrass in tea seems strange at first blush, but a different Russian tea I found while researching is flavored with buffalo grass.  The orange and lemongrass mix really well with the bergamot, balancing out that piney taste, and while the texture isn't as velvety as the Cream Earl Grey, the tea has a clean finish, with only a mild pleasant aftertaste.

Russian Earl Grey is a nice cup of tea, but probably not quite a staple that I'll keep on hand.  I'm very curious to track down that Smoky Earl Grey and give that another whirl...I'll be sure to post my notes here when I do.  Score:  85 (B)

Monday, April 4, 2011

Tea. Earl Grey. Hot. -or- It's Earl Grey week here at Tempest!

Ok, sorry for the Jean-Luc Picard reference, it felt obligatory.  I have notes on several different Earl Grey teas, and I thought it would be fun to spread them across a week...thus, Earl Grey week is born.

Earl Grey is one of those ubiquitous teas that everyone seems to know.  It's probably the most well known flavored tea; the unmistakable citrus, pine aroma and taste come from the peel of the bergamot orange, a citrus plant native to southeast Asia, but also grown in Italy and France.  There are several different stories regarding how Earl Grey tea was introduced to England, all of them probably apocryphal...Prime Ministers saving Chinese emperor's lives and whatnot. What is fact is that Earl Grey tea was first given as a gift to the eponymous 2nd Earl Grey in the early 1800's, and spread throughout England's upper class from there.

Earl Grey was originally solely blended from Chinese black teas, but these days I find it's mostly Ceylon, which is probably less finicky and better suited for blending than Chinese black.  The bergamot aroma is unique, sort of like a cross between Seville orange and fresh white pine needles.  (As an aside, you can make an herbal tea by boiling white pine needles in water.  It's startlingly high in Vitamin C, and must taste horrible.)  A good Earl Grey will have mild floral notes from the tea, which should blend with the bergamot,  rather than simply get lost in the mix.  The tea should have a bite of astringency, and plays well with the addition of lemon, though to be honest, I usually add milk.  It's not as traditional, but it goes well enough.  Earl Grey is a traditionally an afternoon tea, and the bergamot aroma is pretty relaxing.  I find the tea a bit too "tangy" for a morning cup, but others' mileage may vary.

Truthfully, until my wife discovered Cream Earl Grey earlier this year, I hadn't had a cup of Earl Grey in a long time.  Earl Grey was one of my first favorites, along with Irish Breakfast, when I really started drinking tea, but I got burnt out on the citrusy/piney taste quickly.  Cream Earl Grey offers a slightly different take on the tea, with the cream offering more sweetness and that velvety texture to balance out the bergamot "tang."  Cream Earl Grey, as with several different Earl Grey variants, has cornflower petals blended in with the tea.  I cannot for the life of me figure out if this is simply ornamental, or if the cornflower actually adds to the taste of the tea.  They're a nice shade of blue, anyway.  The tea has a long, smooth finish, and leaves a sweet, creamy aftertaste.

Cream Earl Grey is a great cup of tea, and has become a fast favorite in our household.  Though traditional Earl Grey doesn't feel like a breakfast tea, we can drink the cream variant any time of day.  Score:  92 (A-)

Stay tuned for more Earl Grey variants: Russian Earl Grey, and Baroness Grey!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

A First attempt at Mixology

In my review of Nilgiri, I noted that it was a key component in Irish Breakfast, a common and flavorful blend.  In fact, the two most basic components of Irish Breakfast, Nilgiri and Assam, were sitting right next to each other in my cupboard, so it was only a matter of time until I decided to give mixing my own Irish Breakfast tea a go.  This past weekend found me at a loss as to which tea I felt like making, and I decided, today was the day.

I've read a little here or there about mixing teas, and it's as simple as mixing two or more teas together, but also a bit more complicated than that.  Different teas, and especially different leaf sizes will require different brewing times, so we have to be sure that the leaves of each constituent tea are as close in size as possible, then figure out just how long we're going to brew our creation.  Luckily, my Assam and my Nilgiri are roughly the same tea grade, and they both brew for about three or four minutes, so for my first attempt, a lot of the guesswork is taken out of it.

With a sense of "Let's just do it, and see what happens" (this may be why I am not an engineer), I dumped about half a teaspoon of Assam and half a teaspoon of Nilgiri in my pot, added boiling water, and steeped.  The result was a cup that tasted close to, if not exactly like Irish Breakfast.  The flavor was close enough to encourage me to keep trying, yet far enough off to make me wonder what I did wrong.  Am I missing an ingredient?  I know some Irish Breakfast blends feature Ceylon, but I didn't think it was obligatory.  I do think I could use some work on my ratios; I think I probably added too much Nilgiri and not enough Assam.

So, then, my first attempt at mixing my own blend was not a rousing success, but neither was it an abject failure.  I'll keep at the Irish Breakfast, I think, until I get it down, before I try something more complicated.

Coming up next, a week devoted to Earl Grey!