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.

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