Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Second Flush Mim Darjeeling

Mim Darjeeling is the fourth of five in Culinary Teas' Darjeeling sampler.  So far, I've tried the Soom, the Castleton, and the Margaret's Hope.  The experience has greatly expanded my knowledge and appreciation of this Northern Indian sub-variety of tea, but it's still not my favorite.  That being said, the Mim is the best of the lot so far, with a complex and beautifully balanced flavor profile.

Mim in from a tea estate in the North of India, located at 6800 feet above sea level.  Apparently, on a clear day, you can see Mt. Everest from the tea garden, which is just cool!  The tea is grown at a pretty high altitude, in relatively cool weather, which means a short growing season, and fairly high prices.  This also means a fairly renowned reputation, and should mean a highly developed flavor, particularly this tea, a second flush, which should have the strongest flavors of the harvest.

So, as with other Darjeeling estates, is this tea worthy of such a reputation?  I brewed a cup the other morning to try and answer this question.  I brewed the tea along similar lines to the other Darjeelings, water brought to a boil and allowed to sit for about a minute (roughly 205 - 210 degrees F), steeped for about three minutes in my Paris infuser.  The resulting liquor is a really nice reddish brown color, with a pleasant aroma.  But how does it taste?

Thumbing through some recent reviews, it's clear that one of the things that I really value lately in a tea is a clean texture and flavor profile.  Darjeeling doesn't disappoint in this regard; all of the estates I've tried deliver a high quality tea with no muddiness or chalkiness, and the Mim is probably the best of lot so far, with a faint natural smokiness.  That being said, I still struggle to find the muscat flavor that Darjeeling is famous for.  I've had wine made from the muscat grape, and it's all been sweet and fruity, with huge grape flavors, while the predominate texture here is in fact a crisp dryness.  Darjeelings seem to be bright and rather astringent, with little of the natural sweetness that I find in other teas.  Perhaps my palate just isn't that nuanced, but maybe I'm just not that big a fan of Darjeeling.  The Mim does have a wonderfully balanced flavor, and really is a quality cup of tea...on the whole, though, I think I'd rather a quality Chinese white.  Score:  82 (B-)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Republic of Tea Silver Rain white tea

It's hard to believe this is my first review of a true, unflavored, loose leaf white tea, one of my favorite types of tea.  While Darjeeling is commonly referred to as the "Champagne of teas," I've always felt quality white tea should really be granted that's smoother, cleaner, and simply more elegant than Darjeeling.  White tea is almost exclusively Chinese, and is the least processed of any type of tea.  For example, black teas are picked, bruised to expose the essential oils, then allowed to oxidize (a process that is frequently and incorrectly called "fermentation."  Actual fermented tea is called Pu-erh, and is a story for another day.)  Green tea is picked, allowed to wilt, and then usually heated to halt any further oxidation.  White tea is picked and allowed to wilt, then dried to halt oxidation, sometimes in steam, but in the highest quality teas, in nothing more than direct sunlight.  The resulting leaves are minimally processed, and brew up a liquor that is fresh and clean, often with lots of natural sweetness and floral notes.  Perhaps not surprisingly, white tea is often the priciest of teas, due to a limited harvesting window and non-mechanized processing.  Though the price is a stumbling block, I still think everyone should try a quality white tea.  The taste and texture are similar in some ways to many green teas, but without the strong vegetal and mineral notes that often show up in greens, and with more natural sweetness and fruit or floral elements.

So, then, on a recent trip to Mrs. Bridges, the mood for a white struck, and I decided to try the Silver Rain from The Republic of Tea.  I'll admit, I tried the tea on name alone; one of the best teas I've ever had is a famous Chinese white called Silver's absolutely amazing, and rather outrageously priced.  So, I thought, Silver Rain is close to Silver Needle, but won't break the wallet.  And it was close.  Silver Rain is a high quality tea, and while I won't put it on the same level as Silver Needle, it's almost there.  It brews up a fresh and clean cup, with natural sweetness and plenty of hints of fruit.  I find Silver Needle to have more floral notes and a more complex profile, while Silver Rain has more straightforward sweetness and fruit.

While I didn't brew this cup myself experience has taught me that brewing white tea is every bit as tricky as green.  It requires a lower steeping temperature and careful attention to steeping times, and usually requires more loose variant I tried in the past called for two full "soup spoons" per cup!  As for temperature, it will vary from tea to tea, but briskly steaming (not bubbling) water is a good rule of thumb.  Most white should only steep for a minute or two.  However, all this attention to detail (as well as the steep price) is at least somewhat offset by the fact that most white teas respond very well to multiple infusions.  All that is required is a slightly longer brew for each new infusion.  Though I didn't try it with the Silver Rain, the Silver Needle was usually good for four infusions per cup.  The tea may cost an arm and a leg, but that's still a bargain you won 't find with black tea!

Score:  90 (A-)  I think I talked as much about Silver Needle as I did Silver Rain, which is perhaps unfair; Silver Rain is a decent, quality tea in it's own right, and at least somewhat cheaper than Silver Needle.  Also worth noting, white teas are naturally low in caffeine, usually as low as 5 - 20 mg per cup.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Harney and Sons Organic Peach bottled iced tea

Another one from Harney and Sons!  It's unusual for me to drink a premade bottled iced tea, let alone review it, but this wasn't actually all that bad.

As I noted last time, Harney and Sons is a pretty good quality, semi-local company.  I've liked everything I've had of theirs, and this is no exception.  The ingredient list is simple and clean, filtered water, organic tea, organic cane sugar, organic honey, and natural flavors (presumably peach?).  The label states no preservatives, but they do throw in ascorbic acid, citric acid, and sodium citrate...not what I'd usually put in my cup of tea, but as non-preservative preservatives, I suppose they could do worse...those things at least occur in food.

The teas that went into making this are not specified.  The label says they are a blend of the "world's finest teas," and while I suspect that's a load of marketing, I don't really mind.  I don't look for fancy flavors in my iced tea, particularly if there's fruit on board.  Iced tea to me is all about a very cold, refreshing drink for the summer time, and not about the nuances of fancy, first flush teas.

Luckily, this fits the bill.  The tea is non-descript, but pleasant and clean, without any chalkiness or astringency, and the sweetener is judiciously applied, which gives Harney and Sons points in my book.  My two major issues with bottled iced tea are:  not using real brewed tea, and way oversweetening, but here, the cane sugar and honey provide just enough lift to make a nice bottle of tea perfectly refreshing.  The peach flavor is nice...perhaps a bit understated, but at least it tastes like real peach.  Attention Nestea and Snapple, this is how you bottle iced tea.

Score:  85 (B) Worth noting, although this tea is sweetened with both cane sugar and honey, a full bottle (2 servings, which is silly, who doesn't drink the whole bottle?) contains only 10 grams of sugar, which is not half bad.  I prefer to make my own iced tea, but this is a pretty quality product that I don't mind at all.  Someday soon I'll have to try a bottled iced tea from HonesTea, another clean, mildly sweetened bottled iced tea that I've heard good things about.

(Hmm, as another afterthought, peach iced tea mixes amazingly well with bourbon.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Harney and Sons English Breakfast

I've encountered teas from Harney and Sons from time to time, and always thought to myself, "What a nice, proper English tea company."  Harney and Sons it turns out is based just over the border in New York, and is about as English as, well, apple pie.  They are however, a great company, with a lot of blends, both traditional and rather innovative, by the looks of it.  I've only had a few of their blends thus far:  the Queen Catherine, and the subject of today's review, their English Breakfast.  Now, a while back, in a discussion of breakfast teas, I noted that while today most English Breakfast teas heavily feature Assam, there are some "fancy" blends that are composed solely of Keemun, a Chinese black tea, often known for a wine or fruit taste.  As it turns out, English Breakfast  blended from Keemun teas is in fact much more traditional, and probably dates from before Indian teas were featured so heavily in Britain.  Harney and Sons English Breakfast is just such a blend, giving me the opportunity to try something both traditional and new to me.

The tea itself is high quality loose leaf tea.  I'm always impressed with Chinese black teas, and this is no exception.  Though they tend to be a bit less forgiving than Indian teas, I find Chinese black teas to have some really unique and clean flavors.  I made a single cup of this over the weekend, using the old tea ball:  a rounded teaspoon's worth of English Breakfast in the tea ball, freshly boiling water, steep for about 4 minutes, add a splash of milk, and ready to go.  As a breakfast blend, I suspect this would play well enough with sugar, but I don't find it necessary myself.

As I've noted somewhere before, the Keemun I've had had a strong, unique taste, reminiscent of a dry red wine or roasted fruit.  What then, would a breakfast tea made up solely of Keemun taste like?  Surprisingly, a lot like most other English Breakfast blends I've had, with a sort of crisp, biscuit-like note to the flavor, suggestive maybe of buttered toast.  I will say this has a far cleaner, more refined flavor profile than cheaper blends that I've had in the past.  There's no muddiness here, just a clean, fairly bright mouthfeel, with the faintest hint of smoke that lingers through a moderate and pleasant finish.  There's only some mild astringency, but nothing to pucker the mouth or dry out the tongue.  I don't know that I'd make this a goto for my morning mug anytime soon, but it's definitely a great tea, worthy of the occasional cup.  It also goes to show, I have an awful lot to discover about to come someday.  Score:  90 (A-)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Brodies Famous Edinburgh

Brodies Famous Edinburgh is a black tea blend from Scotland.  I've only been able to find it in bags, which is a shame, as I'd really love to try a smoother loose leaf version of this, but we'll make do.  The tea is available all over the internet, but I've only seen it in person at Mrs. Bridge's, our local tea house.  Though I've never been intrigued enough to purchase it myself, it's become a favorite of my Mom's, and I'll usually make a cup when we're there visiting.

My favorite quality of Scottish teas is the flavor attributes they sometimes share with Scotch, and the Famous Edinburgh is no exception.  The base of the tea is most likely Assam, lending some malt and oak, much like Scottish Breakfast, but the Assam is blended with something lighter and spicier, probably a Ceylon variant.  The resulting blend is interesting:  malty, oaky, and a little spicy.  The addition of milk and a sweetener, preferably honey, brings about a halfway decent cup of tea, at least somewhat reminiscent of a complex single malt.

I did have some quibbles with an otherwise pleasant tea.  As mentioned above, this is a bag tea, and not the highest quality.  The bags themselves are rough paper, and the tea is not exactly full leaf, but my biggest issue is that they're small...I find myself doubling up two bags to make one cup of tea.  Another reviewer was perplexed at the weak cup of tea one bag produced, and actually ripped apart tea bags from Brodies as well as several other companies, and found the Brodies had about half as much tea as most other companies.  Perplexing...were they truly looking to validate old fashioned Scottish stereotypes?

So then, I like the blend, but not the questionable quality or the rather parsimonious portioning.  I'll have to continue my search for a malty, spicy Scottish tea that more closely resembles a good single malt.  Score:  75 (C)

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Matcha Green Tea

The folks over at Culinary Teas, whom I may have mentioned a time or two, have a nice blog, where one of the owners of the company writes about teas she is enjoying and current specials.  They also sometimes do a sort of hat raffle give-away, where if you're interested, you post on the blog entry, then she puts all the names in a hat and picks a winner.  Some months back, the give-away was Matcha green tea, something I've always wanted to try, and to my surprise, I won!

So, then Matcha is a finely milled green tea.  The leaves are essentially ground into a fine powder, which is then whisked into hot water to create a unique cup of tea.  The fact that you're consuming the tea leaf itself puts Matcha pretty high up there in the good-for-you scale, but sadly makes it pretty difficult to make.  I don't own a "tea whisk" and don't have current plans to shell out money for an apparatus that's really only useful for a small bag of one type of tea.  My attempts at Matcha without a whisk were...well, hot water with clumps of tea in it.  Not exactly appetizing.  So the tea sat in the cupboard for a few months, while I wondered what, exactly, I would do with it.

As one of my other selves, when I'm not being a highly renowned tea expert and writer*, I spend a good chunk of time running.  I run more days than not, and sometimes for very long distances.  I find running enjoyable for a lot of reasons, but a downside is that it can leave your legs pretty sore, especially if you've spent two or three hours pounding away at rocky trails.  A while back, I read a suggestion that protein, consumed as quickly as possible after exercise, can ease some of the muscle aches, since the muscles repair themselves more quickly with ample protein.  So, like a ridiculous body builder, I buy and consume whey protein.  And it works...really well.  Unless I actually damage myself, I'm rarely sore, even the day after a rather punishing run.

I write this not to brag about my running "prowess" **, but because one morning, looking for my big canister of powder, I noticed the Matcha sitting in the cupboard, looking all lonely and forlorn.  I then looked at my vanilla flavored whey protein and the milk, and thought, hmm, why not?  Vanilla green tea protein smoothie is pretty good, it turns out.***  I'm sure it's kind of a waste of quality green tea, but it was just sitting on my shelf otherwise, and Matcha is used to flavor ice cream and other foods.  The tea itself has what I consider a typical Japanese green flavor profile, mild natural sweetness, and a fair bit of vegetal plant flavor, but not nearly as much as some teas I've had.  The vegetal notes are pretty washed out when mixed with vanilla protein powder and milk or water, leaving a more run-of-the-mill green tea flavor.  Overall, though, a great use of an otherwise wasted tea.  I don't think I'll grade the tea, this seems a bit outside the box for a tea review.

*In my own special fantasy world, I get paid to write about tea.  And Scotch.

**I may not be fast, but I usually have a smile on my face.

***The protein powder mixes very well with black coffee, too.  I usually get the standard whatever you can find at Walmart, but Trader Joe's makes a protein powder as well, with fewer weird chemicals in it, that we get from time to time. 

Monday, August 1, 2011

Iced Tea Double Feature

It's been a busy couple of months!  Cups of tea, let alone the time to write about them have been few and far between, but a few weeks ago, the wife and I did make a couple of excellent pitchers of iced white tea.  In each case, we filled a big pot partway with water (~2.5 quarts in a 5 quart pot), approximated the number of tea bags for a good strong brew (about 25, though it depends on the tea), and steeped for about 2 minutes (white tea is fragile and usually doesn't overbrew well, especially bag tea).  We scooped the tea bags out, sweetened lightly, and chilled.

Bentley's Ginger Peach White Tea

As a stand alone cup of hot tea, I don't think I'd have that much to say about this tea.  It's pleasant, but pretty unremarkable.  As a well brewed, slightly sweetened ice tea, however, it really shines.  The touch of sweetener, agave nectar in this case, really brings the peach to the forefront, while the tingle of the ginger and the brightness of the tea balance out the profile.  White tea can be finicky and bitter if brewed too long or too hot, or even if it's just not a high enough quality, but I find Bentley's to be decent quality tea, especially for a bag, and a bit more forgiving than some other brands.

Overall, a great cup of summertime iced tea, and pretty easy to make. B+

Tea Nation Raspberry White Tea

Tea Nation's Raspberry White was the second big batch we tried, and it was a bit more finicky than the Bentley's, but with some creativity, came out great.  After our initial steeping in the big pot, I fished out the 25 or so tea bags, and sweetened with some regular old sugar (couldn't find the agave nectar), and taste tested.  My initial impression was that we'd overdone some aspect, and it had come out a hair bitter.  Not wanting to waste a huge pot of fresh tea, my wife did some quick thinking, and grabbed a bag of frozen raspberries from the freezer (I love raspberries, so we're not often without them in some form) and chucked them in the still warm tea.  We let them sit for a few hours to thaw and let the flavors mingle, then chilled the whole thing.  The result was really excellent...more an ice tea based fruit drink than true iced tea, but semantics aside, it was great!  The tea provided a nice astringent backbone for the huge raspberry flavor, and the raspberries were of course, delicious.

I have to give the tea itself a C, as it was kind of finicky and unexciting, but the end result was far better than that, thanks to the wife's quick thinking.

I started writing this entry over a month ago!  Children certainly are free time's good to be writing again, though, even if it's not as often as I'd like.  I hope to be posting a bit more often over the next few months, though I'll just have to take it as it comes.  I have a few good posts hanging out in the back of my mind, as well as another project in the background (running related), but all these things depend on the whims of a colicky infant.  Anyway, hopefully more to come in the near future.