Sunday, February 12, 2012

East Frisian tea

East Frisian tea comes from Ostfriesland, or well, East Frisia.  Ostfriesland is a culturally and linguistically distinct region in Germany.  Situated on the Western side of the country near the Netherlands, Ostfriesland is apparently a rather cool and rainy place, and folks from the region drink more tea per capita than even the Irish, which is all the more remarkable in Germany, a nation given by and large to coffee consumption.  Frisian can be considered a dialect in the German language continuum, and interestingly, despite a rather heavy Dutch influence over the centuries, it is the closest living relative to English.  In fact, Beowulf was written about a hero from these parts, and without the years of Dutch influence, Anglo-Saxon Old English and Frisian would probably be mutually intelligible.  The region's location on the Dutch border explains both the propensity for tea drinking and the composition of the blend itself.  At first part of Germany, the common folk drank beer and lots of it as a daily beverage.  The Dutch conquered the region at one point or another, however, and disapproved of alcohol consumption, and introduced first coffee, then tea.  The Dutch East India company was in full swing, and cheap tea was pouring in from India and also Java, another Dutch colony, thus the common folk could afford a strong malty blend of Assam and Java teas.  Ostfriesland fell under German rule again, but the tea habit stuck.

I first discovered East Frisian tea in a BOP blend from Special Teas, and loved it from the outset.  Special Teas got taken over, and this thick, dark, strong blend disappeared, until I discovered Upton Tea Imports this fall.  Appropriately enough, the tea came in on a cold, rainy day, and to my pleasant surprise, Upton Teas' blend is even better than the one I remember from Special Teas.  East Frisian blends are typically made from a malty, tippy Assam and Java teas.  Assam is familiar ground, but I must admit, I was only dimly aware that tea even came from Java, an island probably far better known for its coffee.  I also purchased a sample pack of Java, to better understand the blend, and its an ok tea in its own right, but nothing spectacular.

Brewed at a rolling boil, steeped for three or four minutes, and served with milk (or even cream, as is traditional in Frisia) and sugar.  Brown rock sugar, known locally as kluntjes is served over there, and you can purchase the stuff online, but my need for authenticity only goes so far...I'm unlikely to shell out for a special kind of sugar that goes best with one tea, especially since I barely use the stuff.  Served traditionally, the tea is steeped, then poured over the rock sugar, and cream is floated on top, the notion being a layered beverage.  Well, I like doing things correctly and all, but I added a teaspoonfull of gold old white sugar and a tablespoon or so of whole milk and stirred everything together.

This is a strong and dark tea.  In fact, I first tried it because it was described as "stronger and darker" than Irish Breakfast.  Upton Teas' blend, though, is something truly special, huge and thick, with an amazing body and mouthfeel, and flavors of malt, coffee, and cocoa.  Despite my love of tea, I drink about two cups of coffee almost every day, have since I was a teenager, and would hate to give it up, but if I had to, this blend could replace the coffee.  The combination of malt from the Assam and coffee/cocoa from the Java is truly special, and perfectly executed.  Java on its own was kind of muddy and bland, but put up against a strong Assam, and, well, harmony is a wonderful thing.

Score:  99 (A+)  This is a pantry staple, especially in the colder months.  In fact, having sampled probably more than a hundred distinct teas, I can easily say that this is one of my top three, along with last week's Banaspaty Assam and the so far unreviewed Silver Needle White.  I'm also very curious to try full leaf East Frisian...the full leaves would mean a less intense cup, but would also bring more nuances of flavor.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Single Estate Assams

Happy (rather belated) one year birthday, tea blog.  Many happy returns.

I haven't forgotten or forsaken the tea blog, just been on a bit of a hiatus.  Babies, work, lots of cups of coffee, trying to squeeze the occasional condensed exercise in there somewhere, but very little tea, and no writing to speak of.  I've worked my way through an order of samples from Upton Tea Imports, so I have notes to write a few good reviews, but not so much the time lately.

So, Upton Teas is a local, Massachusetts company with a large warehouse less than an hour from here.  I've looked at their site from time to time, but never really gotten around to ordering, at least until the weather got cold and I got a hankering for East Frisian tea, a dark, thick, malty blend that's perfect for dismal, wet weather.  East Frisian blends can be hard to find, but a cursory web search brought me to Upton Teas, and I thought to myself, I've been meaning to try them for a while.  Now, I subscribe to the notion that if you're going to get a small amount of tea, why not get a small amount of a bunch of teas?  It costs very little, is a great way to explore new teas, and it gives me lots and lots to write about.  Luckily, Upton has a huge selection, and I ended up with ten small sample pouches at my door in less than 48 hours.  Great service, and as it turns out, great tea...this company takes loose tea pretty seriously.

To start working my way through my backlog of notes, let's talk Assam...single estate Assam.  In tea parlance, single estate means the tea comes from only one plantation.  In the past, I've compared them to single malts, though do to the seasonal nature of tea, most batches are also from only one year or growing season, so perhaps a single barrel whisky is a more apt comparison.  We've talked about Assam a little bit before.  In the past, I've always found it to be a sturdy, robust tea that takes well to milk and serves as the backbone for many a strong, bold breakfast cup.  It's solid, reliable, and can be a bit bland.  I thought the last until I finally tried some single estate Assam, anyway.

Banaspaty TGBOP
Tippy Golden Broken Orange Pekoe, quality broken leaf pieces with plenty of golden tips.  Broken leaf teas lose perhaps some nuance of flavor in exchange for a stronger, more intense cup, so I'd be very curious to try a full leaf variety here, but no matter, as is this is possibly the best cup of tea I've ever had.  Dark, reddish brown in the cup, with a full, chewy yet never chalky mouthfeel.  The flavor is malty and fruity at once, with a wonderful natural sweetness.  Malt and oak, perfectly balanced with an amazing thick blackberry jam flavor.  Banaspaty kept bringing to mind port wood aged Speyside malts with its combination of malt and dark fruit.  It was excellent both black and more so with milk, and the jam notes really shone with the addition of a little sugar...maybe half or a full teaspoon.  I would get this tea again and again, though there are of course many other Assam estates to try.  Score: 99 (A+)

Brewed with water at a full rolling boil,  one teaspoon to a six ounce cup, and a shorter steep time than most black teas, at only three minutes.  The smaller leaf size does tend to brew up rather quickly, and I suspect five minutes might allow some bitterness to seep in.

Numalighur TGFOP1
Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe, full leaves with plenty of golden tips...the 1 denotes highest quality.  A full leaf tea, which brews up a slightly lighter cup than the Banaspaty.  The Numalighur has a more complex profile than the Banaspaty, with sweet malt notes mingling with dark raisins, easily reminiscent of a sherry aged Speyside or Highland malt.  Less oak than the Banaspaty, and a touch drier in the mouth.  Although the body is a little lighter, the finish lingers a bit longer.  I hesitate to use the word, but a more "elegant" cup than the Banaspaty, though not necessarily better.  Another tea I will definitely get again!  Score:  95 (A)

Brewed with the same parameters as the Banaspaty, but the full leaf size calls for a longer steep...I had success with five minutes.  Again excellent black, as well with milk and a bit of sugar.  I think the sugar made less of a difference here than with the Banaspaty.

These are two truly fantastic teas.  I should never have waited so long to try single estate Assams...I think I have a lot more exploration through the area, and I currently have a new favorite tea.  More to come!