25 Tasting Notes
I haven’t had a moment in a while when I’ve been able to say, “wow, this is a really good tea.” And that doesn’t really change with this tea.
I know Keemuns are supposed to be among the best black teas and I’m certainly a black tea kinda guy, but I’m just not getting all the Keemun hype. I’ll still take a good Yunnan, one that’s malty like Rishi’s Golden Yunnan, or one that’s caramel-like, such as an all-bud Yunnan, over just about anything.
This tea had a nice hint of deep chocolate, but the rest of the flavor was all smoky-tarry. When I’m in the mood for something smoky, I’ll go for some Scotch-smoked salmon on a bagel. Just not sure I’m looking to replicate that sensation in a hot beverage. (And I so don’t get the whole lapsang thing. First time I had it, I thought someone had accidently extinguished their cigarette in my tea.)
For all my bashing of this Keemun, it has a nice rich texture, however. But I think there are better things out there — maybe even among Keemuns.
For all of my black tea drinking, I’m a relatively newbie to Ceylon teas. But I decided to break out of my Yunnan, Assam, or Darjeeling rut and give this one a try.
Koslanda has been an organic and biodynamic estate since 1992 and is located in Sri Lanka’s Uva’s District, famous for its teas and often used in blends.
The recommended steep time for this tea is relatively short for a black tea, three minutes, not because it’s delicate like a Darjeeling, but because this is a broken-leaf tea and with all that additional leaf-fragment surface area, this baby infuses quickly.
The liquor is rich and dark, but what’s missing is flavor. It’s not an unpleasant flavor, mind you, it’s just completely lacking. It sort of hints at being Assam, with a glimpse of maltiness, with a bright nuance reminiscent of Darjeeling, but they’re all vague hints. And the clean finish that Upton’s description mentions is really a euphemism for when you swallow, any flavor immediately disappears from your mouth — there’s no after-taste whatsoever.
That said, because the liquor is smooth and rich, it holds up to creamer and sweetener fairly well. After trying it neat, I added vanilla rice milk and agave syrup and it tasted, um, sweet and vanilla-y. But the tea was doing very little of the work here. Disappointing.
Alas, poor Upton Organic Yunnan FOP Select. If I had this tea in a restaurant, I’d be delighted with it, just grateful that they served me a decent tea instead of the tannic bagged crap that’s usually served after dinner, even at good restaurants.
But, unfortunately for Organic Yunnan FOP Select, above-average doesn’t quite cut in a world of overachievers. I’ve tasted Rishi’s Organic Ancient Tree Golden Yunnan. And, FOP Select, you’re no Rishi Golden Yunnan.
I’ve tasted Ito En’s Yunnan Golden Tips. And, FOP Select, you’re no Ito En Golden Tips either. Why, I’ve even tasted FOP Select’s brother, Upton Season’s Pick Yunnan TGFOP. And you’re not that either.
Yeah, FOP Select, you’ve got that great smooth full-bodied Yunnan finish, without that smoky quality that makes some Yunnans taste like Keemun wannabees. But where’s the malt, man? Where’s the caramel quality that comes from the tips — the buds — in the tea? Where are the qualities that make Yunnans taste like Yunnans?
FOP Select, you’re O.K., but your nothing special. You’re a C+ student in a class of A scholars. You’re the journeyman utility infielder who occasionally sees some action as a pinch hitter, but who will never start a game, let alone make “the Hall.” Yeah, they’ll come out for your retirement party, say nice things about you while you’re handed your gold watch, but your portrait will never hang in the executive dining room, the dining room in which, by the way, they serve only really fine teas (yeah, in my dreams).
FOP Select, you’re a swell tea, a tea that would delight any restaurant-goer who’s resigned himself to the fact that while upscale restaurants will serve only the best coffees, they’ll serve whatever crappy tea their distributer hands them. But, alas, in my kitchen, I get to do the tea buying and I’m afraid, FOP Select, you not only lack the pesticides and artificial fertilizers I avoid in my tea, but you also lack the taste I seek. We’ll let you know if we have any openings.
I decided I was going to get out of my Rishi Ancient Tree Organic Golden Yunnan rut and order some Season’s Pick Yunnan TGFOP from Upton Tea Imports. In retrospect, this is kind of like saying I’m tired of pasta in a pomodoro sauce and thinking I’ve really ventured out of my comfort zone by ordering it with a marinara sauce instead. O.K., so I really like Yunnan teas, what can I say. They tend to be full-bodied and malty like Assams, but are milder and can sometimes have this great caramel finish that’s really comforting to drink. Kinda like the old pair of sweat pants you change into when you get home from work.
While Chinese black teas (congous) don’t always have pekoe grades — that’s more of an Indian thing — this one does, which is really helpful in letting you know what you’re buying. This is a fairly high grade of tea. And while that doesn’t necessarily guarantee you a great cup (I’ve had some mediocre FTGFOPs this past year), more often than not, a tea with a finer grade is going to yield you a better cup, at least that’s what my experience has been.
This is a pretty decent tea. The infusion (wet leaves) is medium dark while the liquor is a really deep brown (nearly black) after a five-minute steep. The taste is very slightly smokey, a characteristic that I suspect comes more from the roasting process than from the actual tea plant. There’s a hint of that Yunnan peppery thing, but not nearly as strong as I found in Upton’s Yunnan Shui Jiu. http://steepster.com/teas/upton-tea-imports/6169-yunnan-shui-jiu
The tea wasn’t really malty and didn’t really have a caramel finish, unlike Rishi’s Ancient Tree Golden Yunnan, which, on the whole, I prefer to this tea. But this Upton selection is pretty good if you want to try a different Yunnan.
If you order it from Upton’s, you need to know the catalog number so you can differentiate this tea from the other 21 Yunnans Upton’s sells. This one is ZY05. Or try this link http://www.uptontea.com/shopcart/item.asp?from=catalog.asp&itemID=ZY05&begin=0&parent=Teas%3EBlack%3EChina&category=Yunnan&sortMethod=0&categoryID=14
Upton’s organic Yunnan Shui Jiu is one of those Yunnan congous (Chinese black teas) that answers the question, “What the hell are those tea reviewers talking about when they refer to a Yunnan as spicy or peppery?” This tea definitely has a peppery finish (think black pepper, not cayenne) that’s attributed to so many Yunnans, but which seem to never be there when you taste the taste the tea for yourself.
This is available from Upton’s utilitarian website at http://www.uptontea.com/shopcart/item.asp?from=catalog.asp&itemID=ZY65&begin=0&parent=Teas%3EBlack%3EChina&category=Yunnan&sortMethod=0&categoryID=14
The tea’s catalog number is ZY65, an important thing to know since Upton imports a whopping 22 different Yunnan teas, five of them organic like this one.
From what I could guess from an online translating website, “shui jiu” means “black jade water,” although, because Chinese is a tonal language where intonations can change the meaning of words, the transliterated name can also mean “chronically diseased handkerchief” or “to sleep with your maternal uncle.” (And my friends want to know why white boy, yours truly, has given up any hope of ever learning Mandarin despite spending much of his weekend hanging out in New York’s Chinatown.)
Yunnan produces a big variety of teas — green teas, pu-ehrs, and congous — all from the same type of plant, the large-leafed assamica varietal. Even among the black Yunnans, the variety is diverse, encompassing everything from caramel-like golden tips, rich malty teas made from two-leaf, one-bud pluckings, and Shui Jiu, which is rich and smokey, with a smooth peppery finish.
While Yunnans are well-regarded black teas, among the best in the world, they live in the shadow of Darjeelings, the so-called champagne of teas, and Keemums (Qimens), the so-called burgundy of teas, largely, I’m convinced, because those other teas are the darlings of the British tea-drinking set, who traditionally shaped the black tea market. That said, however, I think Yunnans are right up there in quality.
Yunnan may be the oldest tea-producing region in the world, with tea production going back more than a thousand years, some of it today harvested in the wild from full-grown tea trees that are more than 1,300 years old. Nevertheless, the region has only been producing black teas since about 1939, almost all of it to satisfy foreign markets. The locals themselves gravitate more toward pu-ehrs — aged, fermented teas — or toward green teas (think Rishi Emerald Lily). http://www.rishi-tea.com/store/ancient-emerald-lily-organic-fair-trade-green-tea.html
While Upton doesn’t mention a pekoe grade for this tea, it’s tippier (has more buds) than an FOP Yunnan I have at home, although perhaps not as tippy as a TGFOP Yunnan I also have. I’m guessing then that it’s probably somewhere in the neighborhood of a GFOP. It looks nothing like the photo from Upton, by the way, which makes it look very green. It’s actually a deep brown.
Upton describes the tea as having a medium concentration of golden buds, but I’m not sure what “medium” means in this case. Teas are plucked using prescribed methods — finely plucked using two leaves and a bud, imperially plucked using one leaf and one bud — so the bud to leaf percentage should always be theoretically known, 33 percent, 50 percent, whatever. Your guess is as good as mine what “medium” means.
I steeped Shui Jiu for the recommended five minutes with water straight from the boil. The liquor was a very dark brown. The infusion (the wet leaves) was medium dark. (I’m not sure why it’s customary to note the color of infusions in tea reviews. The color doesn’t always correlate to the liquor and, hey, we don’t eat the infusion. I mean, at least I don’t.)
The smokiness was for me a departure from the malty quality I associate with Yunnans based on others I’ve tried. (I regularly drink Rishi’s Golden Yunnan and Itoen’s all-tip Yunnan Gold). The taste was pleasant, and not overwhelming the way I find the smokiness in Lapsang Souchong, a tea I’m not fond of at all).
The smokiness did, however, obscure most of any malty notes, but the texture was smooth, a quality that I think differentiates Yunnans from other often-malty teas, such as Assams. Shui Jiu was a nice change-of-pace from the other Yunnans that I drink almost daily, but it lacks that comfort food, malty quality that makes Yunnans so good.
There’s enough body in the tea to stand up to milk, soy milk or Rice Dream, but I’m not sure the smokiness of the tea would really lend itself to a creamer.
If you like a smokey Keemun or searching for that Yunnan that really has a pepper finish, this could be your tea. As for me, I’ll enjoy it while I have my sample, but it’s not going to eclipse my other Yunnans.
Rob is rambling and unfocused today, so my apologies in advance. He’s also referring to himself in the third person, which is a tad alarming. Might have something to do with staying up late last night to watch the Yankee game. Unfortunately, my Mets aren’t in the post-season, so I’m stuck watch my wife’s and my son’s team in the playoffs. Oh, right, we’re supposed to be talking about tea…
Makaibari Second Flush is a classic Darjeeling from one of the oldest tea estates in Darjeeling and perhaps the world. Makaibari (I’ve heard it generally pronounced Mock EYE Bahri) also has the distinction of being an organic and biodynamic estate and is perhaps the last major Darjeeling plantation still under private family ownership. This tea estate, however, is bigger than 1,700 acres, so I’d hardly call this an artisanal tea. More at http://www.makaibari.com/, including a clip from a documentary about Makaibari’s egomaniacal owner, Rajah Banerjee. An article about traveling to the Makaibari estate can also be found at http://travel.nytimes.com/2007/10/14/travel/14Tea.html?pagewanted=all
This particular batch of tea was purchased from Ito En’s Madison Avenue store in NYC, but, strangely, Makaibari isn’t listed on Ito En’s website for online purchase. That said, a lot of online purveyors carry this tea, so it shouldn’t be hard to find.
Ito En didn’t list the pekoe grade for this tea, but at a modestly priced $3.50 an ounce it can’t be a particularly high grade. (Guessing it’s like a GFOP or FOP.) But don’t sweat the grade, however. Lower grades of good harvests are still really good teas. And this is a really good tea. It’s got that classic Darjeeling brightness, although, alas, it lacks that strong delicious peach undertone that you find in some Darjeelings.
There is something very cool about buying single-estate teas, the way you would buy a wine. For one, you really know where your tea comes from. In fact, if you really want to geek out, you can see an interactive map of Darjeeling’s tea estates at http://www.darjeelingtea.com/files/teagardens.asp
The down side of buying single-estate teas, as opposed to blended regional teas, is that the product can vary greatly from year to year, just like a wine. But that makes buying single-estate teas even more interesting, I think.
Although Darjeelings are unmistakably Indian, I believe most of the Darjeeling estates use the smaller-leaved Chinese varietal tea plants, which are apparently hardier than Assamicas and fare better in the relatively high altitude of the region. (The exception, I think, is the Margaret’s Hope estate, which predominately uses Assamicas to give their teas a unique taste among their competitors, although they still taste like Darjeelings to me.)
While first-flush Darjeelings require short steeping times, this second-flush tea can steep for nearly five minutes before it goes tannic on you. While some people will put milk in a second-flush Darjeeling, I really don’t think it’s full-bodied enough to stand up to cow juice or soy milk or Rice Dream or whatever is creaming your drink. Not really sure the brightness of the tea really goes with milk anyway, the way a malty tea, such as an Assam or Yunnan, would.
Sorry for the ramble. Probably could have summed up the whole thing in about seven words: It’s a good tea. Have a cup.
Many good teas consist of one leaf bud for every two fully developed leaves. Other premium teas are imperially plucked, one bud for every leaf. Ito En’s Yunnan Gold Tips are just buds, and nothing but the buds. It’s kinda what a white tea would be if you let the leaf buds oxidize.
This tea is smooth in terms of how it feels in your mouth, has a really malty taste with an aftertaste that’s sort of like honey or caramel. And with the tea plant pumping all that sugar to nourish these buds, it’s not surprising that this tea is sweet, even if you don’t add sugar, honey or agave. It’s not as full-bodied as a “regular” one-bud, two-leaf black Yunnan, but with a five-minute steep, this tea can hold up to milk.
At $7 an ounce, it’s not cheap. It can be purchased at Ito En’s store on Madison Avenue in Manhattan if you happen to live in NYC or it can be ordered online at http://www.itoen.com/leaf/.
So what don’t I like about this tea? Well, for one thing it’s not organic and that’s a pretty big deal for me. When you buy produce, you at least get to wash it before you put it in your mouth. Tea arrives dry and goes straight into your cup when you make it. While I like Chinese black teas, when I think about safe application of pesticides (or food safety in general) China isn’t the first place that comes to mind. Organic tea is a big selling point for me and given that there is so much wildly harvested tea in Yunnan, it wouldn’t think it would be hard for Ito En to find an organic source for this tea. Numi Teas apparently has an organic Yunnan gold tip tea, and I’ll certainly be giving that one a whirl at some point and see how it compares to Ito En’s.
But if you like malty black teas or like Yunnan’s in general, this tea certainly meets the taste criteria.
It’s cold and raw in New York, but the Yankees are kicking butt and I’ve got a cup of some award-winning Rishi Masala Chai.
Yeah, this is pretty much to tea what mashed potatoes or scrambled eggs are to food, pure comfort. The best traditional Masala chai out there. And not only great-tasting, but since I don’t own stock in Monsanto I appreciate that it’s organic and I’m not getting a side of pesticide residue with my beverage.
Some tea snobs turn their noses up at chai. (“It’s not really a fine tea, old boy.”) But when you’re craving something rich, a cup of Darjeeling ain’t going to scratch the itch — not even the FTGFOP variety.
While it’s great if you make it the way you’d make your regular tea (use a five-minute steep), it’s even better if you make it the traditional Indian way. Forget the teapot and just use a saucepan. Two teaspoons of chai, one-and-a-half cups of water, half-cup of milk (or, in my case, vanilla Rice Dream), bring it to a boil and then let it simmer for five minutes. Add sugar, honey or agave syrup. Strain and serve and watch Mariano Rivera shut down the Angels for game number one. Strange. It doesn’t feel that cold in here any more.
Ti Kuan Yin (Iron Goddess of Mercy) is an oolong grown in Fujian Province and is designated as one of China’s “10 Famous Teas” and may be the best-known oolong in the world.
The batch I’m reviewing, Iron Goddess Superior, was purchased straight from Ito En’s Madison Avenue store in Manhattan, but it can also be purchased from the company’s less-than-user friendly website. On the website, the loose-leaf teas can be found on the homepage nav bar under “Ito En Brands,” which strikes me as a little weird, but whatever. Or go straight to the tea selections from this link. http://www.itoen.com/leaf/
This Ti Kuan Yin is lightly oxidized, much less oxidized than more traditional Ti Kuan Yins, such as those I’ve purchased from Porto Rico Importing. The infusion (or, as they say in my neighborhood, “da wet leaves”) are olive green, as opposed to the medium brown I’ve seen on other Ti Kuan Yins. And the liquor was light green, as opposed to medium amber.
I did a four-minute steep, which in some circles would be considered a long steeping time for this tea, but I’ve found most oolongs can go three or four minutes. This tea can also be served using what’s called the gung fu (or kung fu) method, using large amounts of tea for very short steeping periods
-as short as 30 seconds - and steeping it multiple times, which enables you to bring out the tea’s different nuances with each successive infusion. However, all I was interested in was a cup of tea, not to make a whole afternoon of it.
Anyway, this tea had that typical Iron Goddess roasted flavor, but not quite as intensely as other variations of this tea I’ve tried. The tea wasn’t bad, but given my penchant for black teas and more oxidized oolongs, this seemed just a tad thin to me or maybe too green. Hey, if you’re going to all that trouble to process an oolong, which may be the most complicated teas for growers to make and involves bruising the leaves, sweating them to stimulate the tannins, and other complicated steps, you’d think they at least oxidize the leaves more to make it more distinctive from a straight pan-fired green.
I give this tea neither a thumbs up or a thumbs down. If you’re normally a green-tea sort of person, you might appreciate this Ti Kuan Yin’s green leanings. If you’re coming to oolongs from the dark side, black teas that is, no George Lucus reference intended, you might prefer a darker Iron Goddess, like what they have at Porto Rico Importing. http://www.portorico.com/store/page30.html
At $1.40 an ounce for Porto Rico’s Iron Goddess, as opposed to Ito En’s $5.60 an ounce, you might also appreciate the price savings. Porto Rico also has a pricier superior grade Ti Kuan Yin at $3.31 an ounce (still cheaper than Ito En’s), but I haven’t tried that one yet.
If you’re in New York, you should definitely check out both stores, arguably the two best tea purveyors in the city, although completely different experiences. Ito En, Madison near 69th, is a zen-like Japanese experience, complete with the salespeople presenting the tea to you to sniff like a fine wine. Porto Rico is unmistakably New Yawk. (Go to Porto Rico’s main store on Bleeker, just east of Sixth Avenue.)
This organic Earl Grey is made using the same ancient assamica tree leaves as Rishi’s regular Golden Yunnan. The leaves here are much darker than in the Golden Yunnan either as a result of the scenting process or, as I suspect, because it’s less tippy (has fewer buds). Truth is, if you’re planning on scenting a tea, it makes sense that you wouldn’t use a lot of buds, the flavor of which will only get overwhelmed by the bergamot. Anyway, this brew yields a rich liquor with a great citrus taste that doesn’t taste medicinal the way some some cheaper Earl Greys can taste. A nice tea, as my grandmother would say.
A nice travelogue about the ancient Yunnan harvest can be found at http://www.rishi-tea.com/travelogue/Fair_Trade_Organic_Tea/slides/Map_of_China.php.
Another good article about the wild Yunnan harvest can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/21/world/asia/21tea.html?scp=7&sq=tea&st=cse