5 Tasting Notes
In accord with the vendor’s suggestion, I steeped this tea three times using the same water temperature and brewing time rather than increasing both with each new rinse. The result was three quite different (but all very nice) cups of tea.
First cup: Light, clear yellow liquor, slightly sweet and noticeably smoky flavor.
Second: A much darker brew that was so cloudy I could barely see through the glass mug. (Also, lots and lots of sediment on the bottom. Must be from dust and fannings that were hiding inside the rolled balls.) This time the tea was much thicker and more brothy, though the smokiness was still there.
Third: Essentially a lighter version of the second cup, a little clearer and a little weaker in flavor. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that after two mugs’ worth.
(The tea sold by Harney & Sons as Fanciest Formosa is more generically known as Bai Hao.)
I know it’s not the point, but I just want to begin by saying that this a really pretty tea. The dry leaves, which are rolled up into thin, wiry forms, range through several different shades of reddish-brown with the occasional greenish thread or long silvery bud. Imagine a chiffonade of autumn leaves.
The liquor itself is a deep golden color, and the aroma has rich notes of stone fruit and dark flowers. It’s especially powerful if you take a good whiff of the freshly drained leaves as professional tasters do. The flavor matches, with a nice medium body and a lot of sweetness (for an unsweetened beverage, anyway). In short, I really love this tea.
Oh, and did I mention how pretty the dry leaves are? This is a good tea to brew in a glass pot if you have one, because you get to see this twiggy leaves expand into beautiful medium-sized leafsets. This process wasn’t complete when I drained the first brew, but by the time I started the second (for three and a half minutes) it was pretty much set. They can give a third steeping as well (I give it four minutes) with nice flavor and aroma, though the peach notes are definitely reduced.
I’m still working on my relationship with this tea.
When it came in the mail, I saw the instructions on the bag which recommended I steep one tablespoon of leaves per eight ounces of water, using boiling water for three to four minutes. That seemed like a lot of tea to me, but I figured the folks at Rishi know their products better than I do, so I did just what they said. Even after three minutes, the result was an undrinkable astringency bomb. I’m now using a much more sensible amount of leaf and somewhat cooler water to account for the buds in this relatively tippy tea, which isn’t technically a Keemun because it’s made in Hubei, the next province over from Anhui, where Qimen (Keemun) county is. Interestingly, when I tried to brew that first oversize batch of leaves a second time, I found that they’d given up most of their tannins in the first round, and the result was odd but kind of nice.
The color of the plain liquor is a beautiful copper red, but I’ve found that I much prefer this tea with some milk. After all, Keemun is the traditional English Breakfast Tea and has been drunk with milk and sugar for over a century. It’s a little harsh without the milk, and the light sweetness of the buds, while detectable through the tannin, could use a little help (I only use a literal pinch of sugar in a 12 ounce mug). There are hints of chocolaty Keemun flavor, helped along by the added sweetness, but ultimately it’s not a tea to write home about. Not that I’m complaining: with milk and sugar it makes a perfectly good breakfast tea, which ain’t bad for something I only bought to boost my order up to $49.00 so I could get free shipping from Rishi.
Harney & Sons’ hojicha is actually a hōji kukicha: most hōjicha is roasted bancha leaves, while hōji kukicha is made by roasting the twigs that are a byproduct of mechanical harvesting of leaves for bancha. (They also sell a plain kukicha, made from twigs that haven’t been roasted.) In a funny little twist on tea making priorities, this twig tea actually has a few unextracted leaf fragments left in it, which drift to the bottom of the pot as it brews while the twigs remain afloat.
Amber-copper liquor, nice toasty smell. In fact, “toasted” pretty much sums up the aroma and flavor of this tea. There’s a little bit of tannic astringency from all the wood, but it doesn’t define the cup. I’ve never used milk or sugar with this one, but I suspect that adding both would produce something an awful lot like drinking a hot bowl of shredded wheat. There’s no traditional tea flavor to speak of.
This is definitely a comforting way to end a day, thanks to both the pleasant taste and the low caffeine content. Mike Harney writes in his book that the flavor of this tea closely resembles that of coffee, which I take as evidence that he doesn’t drink much coffee, but it’s definitely a nice option for introducing coffee drinkers (or lovers of breakfast cereal) to the tea world.
Nice mouth feel, a little thicker than you might expect from the color and aroma. The liquor is light amber, and there’s a hint of sweetness in the mostly vegetal flavor. A slight bitterness shows up as the tea cools. This is a pleasant, basic white.
Something this tea taught me is the usefulness of weighing dry leaves. We’re all told “one teaspoon per cup,” with that cup being six or eight fluid ounces depending on who’s talking, but that really only works if your tea comes in small particles. Some orthodox leaves, like Keemun, do that, but the big ones require a lot more tea by volume. Using a small electronic scale that can measure tenths of a gram, I try to measure out 2.2 grams of leaf per six ounces of water, which for Mutan white turns out to be a couple of tablespoons’ worth.