Friday, November 30, 2007

Hansen's Imported From Nature Tea

I have tried not to use my blog as a place to rant. If I pick a tea to review and it turns out that the tea is poor, so be it. But more and more I try to avoid reviewing a tea that I know will be unpleasant or simply unpalatable. What would be the point? "Bigelow Green Tea, not so good." No shit, right? But I simply can not hold my peace on this any longer.

Americans have a rather dichotomous relationship with our bodies. We are collectively caught up in the health food craze, tea good, carbs bad, and yet we are a nation of fat people. 127 million Americans are overweight; 60 million are considered obese.1

Of course there are a variety of reasons for this, but I think part of the problem is this propaganda war that food and beverage companies have launched against we the consumers. Junk food proclaimed as healthy; Oreos with no trans fat, low-carb beer, and now Hansen's new line of Imported From Nature Tea, "lightly sweetened," with 75 mg of EGCG (its on the label four times, so you wont miss it) and 46 grams of sugar.

I was curious just how much 46 grams of sugar is, so I took a picture, an approximation of the ingredients: 16 oz water, 4 grams of tea (BOP), and 46 grams of sugar.

Maybe its just me, but I think the picture speaks for itself.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

How to hold a gaiwan like a pro... ; )

By special request, for my "retarded" friends. Their words, not mine.

Oh, note for safety: if you are inexperienced with a gaiwan or this method, practice with cold water first.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Imperial Tea Court Dian Hong

For me, when it comes to black tea, its dian hong cha or gtfo. These three come from Imperial Tea Court, Yunnan Black, Select Yunnan Black, and Yunnan Gold Rings. These are the first teas I have purchased from ITC. I had been hesitant, because they source The Republic of Tea's Imperial tea; I find that line to be very overpriced for the quality. However, these three ranged from decent to quite good with comparable prices, so I am not displeased with my purchase.

First up is the Yunnan Black (3 g/8 oz-ish/3.75 minutes).

Of the three this is the least expensive and has the lowest percentage of khaki buds. It is also the most unlike any other dian hong I've previously tried. It smells more like some puerh. At first I didn't like it because it was different, but I've come to enjoy its uniqueness.

Note that the actual leaves do not look as good as the picture on the website, but I guess that is to be expected.

The liquor is more orange than brown or red. It has a rather thin mouth feel, the malty depths I find typical of this type are not there. No innate sweetness, kind of bland, suitable for adulteration. I prefer my daily black tea to be strong and sweet, sweet with the benefit of a judicious allotment of sugar, so while this one is clearly not a sophisticated variety, it will not go unused by me.

The Zarafina didn't like it.

Next is the Select Yunnan Black (3 g/8 oz-ish/3.5 minutes).

This one has a much higher quantity of those golden, khaki leaves that equal deliciousness. The aroma is more typical.

The tea has more depth to it, notes of the sweet amber/honey that I find so endearing. As it cools it becomes more flavorful, though I still can not taste the "pepper" that I often see attributed to Yunnan hong cha.

Of the three, this is the closest to my regular dian hong.

I saved the best for last, the Yunnan Gold Rings.

As the name indicates, the leaves have been rolled into rings. Attractive and interesting yes, but don't worry, I'm not easily drawn in by such frippery. The aroma makes me think of mead in that it makes me think of fermented honey, or what I imagine fermented honey should smell like. In reality fermented honey may smell most foul, for all I know.

This time I tried a different approach with the brewing parameters, using 4 g of leaf for 3 minutes. I did not prefer this way. The flavor did not increase, and it became unpleasantly astringent.

So I made a fresh batch with my standard 3 g/4 min. This was not the best pure bud Yunnan I've tried, but it was very good. Naturaly sweet, malty, and smooth. The "honey" lingers in the mouth for several minutes after.

Wet leaves, clock wise from top: Gold Rings, Black, Select Black.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

2000 Loose Shupu

This one is another generous sample from ABX.

The dry leaves appear standard, uniform in size and shape, varying in color from brown to khaki. Once again after rinsing their is a sweet, sausage-esque aroma.

I like to bully shu a bit when it comes to brewing it, try to get the strongest, most flavorful infusion without the tea turning on me, so I used 10 g/150 ml for 25 seconds. The liquor is a rather dark brown nearing black, and I wondered if I pushed it too far.

Yes. Yes, I did. There is an acidic bite similar to a coffee that has been poorly brewed. I can taste the "meat" I picked up in the aroma.

I scaled down the steeping time to 10 seconds, then 8 seconds after that. The tea is decent, smoother now, but I can't pick up on anything. Either it is too nuanced for me, or I fried my taste buds with the first batch, or both. The fourth steep developed an astringency that was less noticeable as the tea cooled, and it was sweeter. I went for a fifth steep, but I had to go help Molly hang some Christmas lights, so it went untouched, ending the session.

It was a good tea, but I think I was too rough with it. I'll be more gentle next time.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

2000 Commercial Half-Cooked Puerh

Another sample of half-cooked puerh, this one from ABX.

The sample came in a plastic bag, and there wasn't much aroma left, but rinsing the leaves for five seconds brought out the standard earthiness, but something different as well. Something sweet, and something, meaty. Together they reminded me of the sausage rolls you can get at donut shops.

I used all 4 grams and steeped for 1 min, 2 min, and 4 min.

The first infusion was light. There wasn't any of the pseudo-minty camphor, but it had the same cooling qualities of the other half-cooked pu. The second infusion the liquor progressed to a rich burgundy. Still cooling, but stronger, and a thinner mouth feel than a full shupu. Kind of sweet finish on the tip of the tongue. There was also something remotely vegetal, but watered down. The third infusion something else emerges, almost spicy at times, a different sweetness; its too fleeting for me to figure it out.

The wet leaves are comprised mostly of whole, larger leaves with smaller portions of stmes and smaller, tattered leaves.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Indonique Chocolate Chai

I'm feeling indulgent tonight. I was watching a Modern Marvels episode about chocolate, and it, along with the colder weather, put me in the mood.

I received a package of Chocolate Chai from Indonique a while back. Its a mixture of Indian black tea, cocoa, and cinnamon. The dry leaves aren't anything to look at it, but it smells very good.

I ignored the directions on the package for the most part, and boiled 3/4 c milk, 3/4 c water, and two heaping teaspoons, and let it steep for five minutes, adding two teaspoons of sugar at the end.

The beverage is a tasty combination of hot chocolate and English style tea. The cocoa is pleasantly pronounced. The Indian tea, something I don't usually care for, was complimentary, strong, but not bitter. It was creamy and delightful, a nice post Thanksgiving meal treat.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Thank You

I wanted to take a moment and say thank you to everyone.

A lot of free tea and what not has found its way to me since I started this blog, friendly samples from my fellow TeaChat members to things sent to me from companies hoping to generate some word of mouth. The later doesn't always get mentioned here (If I don't like something, I choose not to write about it. Small tea shops have a hard enough time competing for business on the web without bad press from me, even if it is honest bad press).

I appreciate all of it.

I wanted to single out Toru Yoshikawa-san of Artistic Nippon. Again. A few weeks back there was a conversation on the Green Tea Forum in which the owner, Kevin, pointed out that the chasen I had just purchased from Toru-san looked like it was made in China. Within two days I received an email from Toru-san saying that he became aware of the conversation and checked with his supplier.

It turns out that the chasen was made in China. He apologized profusely and offered a refund and free shipping on a replacement as soon as he was able to procure a Japanese-made chasen. I thanked him and declined, because I felt, made in China or not, the price I paid was very fair.

So he sent me a new chasen anyway.

To Toru-san, and everyone else, thank you for being kind to me.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Keemun Hao Ya

This is the last of the samples from Red Circle Tea, save for the dan cong, which I will get to next week.

For those who don't know, Keemun is grown in Qimen County in Anhui, China, north of Fujian. Production began in 1875, and Keemun has been frequently used in blends. I understand Hao Ya is the highest grade of Keemun. Its the only type I have tried, so I cannot confirm or deny this.

The leaves look good, identical to the only other Keemun I've had. The samples were shipped in plastic bags, so there isn't much of a dry aroma left.

Again I went with my standard brewing parameters, 3 grams/8 oz for 4-5 minutes. It was good, smooth. Smokey and sweet, like smoked sugar, made me think of sugar cane and camp fires, but a brisk sweetness, not like the honey-sweetens of the ying de or dian hong. I only steeped the leaves once. I frequently find that consecutive steeps of black tea are too watery, a shadow of the original cup, so I don't often bother.

2006 Half-Cooked Puerh

Today's tea is another sample I received from Red Circle Tea, part of a brick of half sheng, half shu pu from 2006.

I think the dry leaves are beautiful, auburn and brown mixed in with bits of green; it was like autumn. The usual earthy aroma was present, but so was something else I couldn't place.

I measured out 5.5 grams, but there was only a little left, so I tossed it all in the pot. 5 s rinse, then 30 s, 50 s, 90 s, 3 min.

Camphor was the first thing I noticed. I have frequently read about camphor and puerh, but I have never noticed it before today. There was a moment of profound satisfaction as I said to myself, "So that's what they're talking about." Bill says that camphor suggests the use of wild arbor leaves. It was also...minty is definitely not the right word, rather it reminded me of something that reminded me of mint. The puerh was very cooling.

In the third and fourth steeping, notes of something green, vegetal emerged.

All four brews were balanced in strength and color, but shifted from heavy nuances of camphor to a far less pronounced veggie-ness.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Ying De Hong Cha

Ying de hong, or ying hong, is a red (black, for us westerners) tea from Guangdong, China. All the sources I checked agree that it was introduced in 1959 in the town/city of Ying De. I don't know how I missed this tea; a few of the tea sites I frequent carry it, but I had not heard of it until recently, when Aroma Tea Shop offered to send me samples. Given my love for dian hong, I was quite curious and not a little happy when a rep from Red Circle Tea offered to send me a sample as well, ostensibly for comparison.

First up is the Ying De Gold #9 from Red Circle. The leaves are from a particular varietal that is crossbred from Yunnan big leaf and Feng Huang.

I used my standard brewing method for hong cha, 3 grams/8 oz for 4 minutes.

The dry leaves are attractive, long and wiry with khaki coloring. When placed in a heated pot, there is a sweet, dark grain-ish aroma that makes me think of raisin bran of all things. The taste is reminiscent of a good dian hong, without the maltiness. I get strong notes of warm honey. There is a thin mouth feel, but not as thin as a Keemun or Ceylon.

I also tried the brewing instructions that came with the tea, steeping the tea 15-45 seconds in a gaiwan. The focus of this method seems to be to on multiple infusions, the instructions say up to six. It produced a lighter brew, less intense flavor. I prefer my hong cha stronger than this.

The wet leaves remind me of Wuyi yan cha.

I enjoyed this tea, but to be honest, I think the price is a bit much for 2 oz.

The ying de from Aroma wasn't as pleasing over all. I have had it three times, now, and each time it was different.

The first time it kept shifting, reminding me of a keemun one moment and of an assam the next; at one point I picked up on a little fruit. The second cup tasted a bit like an "orchid" oolong I had once. The cup I just finished was fairly nondescript. Over all it never settled on any characteristics that set it apart from any other black tea.

You can see the wet leaves of the two ying de side-by-side for comparison.

I'd like to say thank you to both vendors for the samples. My curiosity is still piqued, and I'll have to try some other varieties of ying de in the future.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Weil for Tea

Ito En teamed up with Dr. Andrew Weil and released a line of tea bags, loose tea, and RTD cans.

Lest you think...I don't know what you might think, but I wish to make it unequivocally clear that I am here to explore the palatable, historical, cultural and aesthetic side of tea, not to perpetuate the current tea related health craze. If you drink tea for health, I think that is wonderful; we could all benefit from healthier lifestyles, but it is not my thing. I work with tea in a retail setting, and one can only sell so much wulong weight-loss tea before becoming a mite tetchy with the subject.

It turns out this stuff is quite good, standard disclaimers concerning ready to drink teas not withstanding. I brought home three flavors, Jasmine White, Gyokuro, and Darjeeling, all unsweetened and calorie free.

I think that these are the tree best RTD teas I've had. They are well balanced. Some unsweetened teas are too weak, watery, while others become overly astringent and unpleasant. These are flavorful, clean and fresh.

I have yet to try real Gyokuro, so I can not properly compare this one to anything. It is smooth, less astringent then Ito En's Just Green, kind of nutty. The Darjeeling was amazing for what it is. Possibly a blend, definitely a late season flush if not, but unmistakeably Darjeeling.

I am impressed. Never before have I had a bottled tea that had as much natural flavor without tasting over-steeped or relying on sweetener to mask the bitterness.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Matcha, Part 4

Sweet Matcha

A few weeks back, Rishi started offering a line of Sweet Matcha. Since then there has been a recurring, morbid interest in it on TeaChat, so I took it upon myself to trek out to Whole Foods and see what it's all about.

The Original Swet Matcha isn't anything new for Rishi, though the packaging is new, and I've never seen it advertised on their website, but it has been part of their Bulk Tea program for some time. I first saw this stuff a year or so ago on an old order guide. The sweet matcha is a mix of matcha and milled cane sugar. I don't know the sugar to tea ratio, but I'd guess at least 50/50.

The color is rather pale, reminds me of dried peas. As to be expected, the aroma was faint.

I used one scoop per ounce of water, and whisked thoroughly, but it wouldn't froth. I suppose because of the high sugar content.

It tastes....I probably have customers who would love this, but I found it very unpleasant, and very, very sweet. A mouth full of warm sugar followed by the distinct taste of matcha. This is not something that I would drink.

However, I looked at their website later, and it would seem that they do not intend this stuff for traditional consumption either. 125 grams for $10? I think its safe to call this food grade matcha.

And sure enough, look at that; they have recipes.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Matcha, Part 3

Kiri no Mori and Kiku Mukashi

They both come from O-cha, and both are grown in Uji. Uji, near Kyoto, was the birhtplace of tea cultivation in Japan. While not always the case, matcha produced in Uji is often superior.

This is an amazing tea, its preperation and consumption unique and unlike any other. From the moment I begin boiling the water till the last drop, I find myself completely engaged in the task at hand. There is little or no waiting, each step flows effortlessly into the next. I better understand the marriage of cha no yu and Zen, the art and practice of continuously committing oneself to the moment.

I covered the preparation of matcha earlier this week, but I left out sifting, mostly because I was still having mixed results at the time. I got the kinks worked out, and I did notice an improvement. It seems to produce a thicker foam and a more thorough consistency. You can purchase a sifter for your matcha, as I will do eventually, but a brew basket will work as well.

The first thing I always notice is the aroma, just a moment after I open the can, green and sweet. The Kiri no Mori has a slight vegetal smell, where as the Kiku Mukashi does not.

Usucha (2 scoops/3-4 oz)

It is hard for me to tell the two apart. Both are sweet, thick but mild, and thoroughly smooth, no astringency or bitterness.

Koicha (3-4 scoops/2-3 oz)

The Kiku Mukashi, a higher quality matcha that "borders on the threshold between the koicha and usucha." I experimented with different methods of preparing koicha. The directions I found on Ippodo pushed the Kiku Mukashi to its limits. Intense, but unpleasant, becoming more astringent than I like my tea to be.

Tonight I tried to remember the instructions that came from O-cha, and used 4 large scoops with 3 oz of water, and the result was outstanding. Certain nuances emerged that weren't there before, and it developed a pleasant bit of astringency that gives the tea texture.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Matcha, Part 2

Raku Yaki

"Ichi Raku, ni Hagi, san Karatsu." -a Japanese expression: First Raku, second Hagi, third, Karatsu, essentially affirming the superiority of Raku yaki. Of course, art apreciation is always subjective.

Raku yaki originated towards the end of the 16th century in Kyoto, during the rule of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, by Sasaki Chojiro, a tile maker who enjoyed the patronage of Sen no Rikyu. Chojiro's chawans sought to embody the essence of wabi cha, Rikyu's fusion of the cha no yu with the aesthetic ideals of wabi sabi.

The briefest explanation of wabi sabi I can offer is finding beauty in the impermanence and imperfection of things.

Prior to Rikyu and Chojiro's contributions, the tea ceremony was a rather jovial affair, full of pomp, and expensive, ornate chawans from China were widely used. Rikyu sought to merge Zen and Tao with Chado, thus the tea ceremony evolved. Chojiro's Raku yaki (at the time it was called ima yaki, literally now ware) were ideal for this. They were monochrome, traditionally black (kuro) or red (aku)--these colors were thought best for enhancing the color of the tea.

Raku yaki is formed completely by hand and low-fired in a special kiln. The resulting piece is light weight and delicate.

Chawan, Chasen, and Chashoku
(Things you need to make matcha).


The aku raku is from artistic nippon; it is wonderful and indeed light weight and delicate. I particularly enjoy the glaze.

The other two chawan were made in Tokoname. I purchased them from Rishi about a year ago. I have been using them as teacups; they comfortably hold an entire pot of tea, and are considerably more aesthetically harmonious with my my Tokoname yaki then a coffee mug.

For making matcha, the larger raku is more suitable. The wider diameter makes it easier to whisk the tea--I found it more difficult to get a good froth going when using one of the other two, and the raku has less heat retention, allowing one to drink the tea immediately. This is important, because if the tea is allowed to sit too long, the matcha will begin to settle.

The last two things you need. The chashoku is not as important, but they are affordable, about $5, and are kind of cool. A chasen is a small work of art in and of itself, and essential to getting the best out of your matcha. As Kevin's expert eye pointed out, this chasen was made in China, not Japan, which explains the lower price I paid. (Thank you Yoshikawa san for being so honest about it as well). While a Chinese made chasen can be good quality, it is likely that it will not last as long as a Japanese made one will. So when choosing a chasen, let the price be your guide and be concerned if the price is too low.

That covers the equipage, next post we'll finally get to the matcha.

For more information about Raku yaki, take a look at the website. It includes a gallery of chawans created by fifteen generations, from Chojiro to the current head of the family, Kichizaemon.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Matcha, Part 1

Intro to Matcha

I always feel a little awkward merely re-wording information I gathered from other blogs and sites if I don't have anything new or original to add; however, since the following posts this week will cover my first ventures into the world of matcha, I think it is important to at least cover the basics.

Matcha (抹茶) comes from tencha (展茶), tea that is grown in the shade for three weeks prior to harvest. Tencha is then destemmed and deveined and ground into a fine powder, matcha, which is what is used for cha no yu. It is important to remember that not all powdered green tea is matcha.

There are two types of matcha, usucha and koicha.

Usucha (thin tea) is more astringent and not as sweet as koicha, so less is used, approximately two scoops using a chashoku.

Koicha (thick tea) is a higher quality matcha, sweeter, allowing more to be used, approximately four scoops.

For more detailed information... O-cha, Hibiki, Wikipedia, Tea Nerd.

How to Brew Matcha

For best results you need a minimum of three things, a chawan (tea bowl), chasen (tea whisk), and a chashoku (tea scoop).

For usucha, start with two scoops and 3-4 oz of water at 175 F, then whisk briskly from side to side. You do not want to use a circular motion. The video should adequately demonstrate what I'm talking about.

I am unclear on the brewing instructions for koicha; I've read different things from different sources, so I'll experiment more before posting the instructions later this week.

This concludes Part 1 for today. Part 2 will cover chawans in more detail, and Part 3 will be a review over my first matcha, o-cha's Kiri no Mori and Kiku Mukashi.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Cha Dao Bottled Teas

A new line of teas from Cha Dao came in today.

Now this may all be a gimmick, who's to say, but Cha Dao describes their teas as "Fresh," meaning instead of a bottled tea that is shelf stable that could have been brewed over a year ago, these teas are kept refrigerated and have a relatively short shelf life. The one I'm drinking right now expires next Saturday.

Both the Sencha and the High Mountain Oolong taste over-brewed. They have a high level of astringency I find typical in many unsweetened bottled teas. The oolong does have a distinct jade oolong taste, setting it apart from the Ito en or Adagio oolong.

But the Yin Yang, a lightly sweetened blend of black tea and coffee is surprisingly good. Much better than my attempt to make a coffee tea. It is wonderfully balanced, both the coffee and the tea are distinct without overpowering the other. It has a very clean taste, nothing artificial. The 9 grams of sugar per 8 oz is almost perfect, in my opinion--I usually use 5-7 grams (one tsp.) for black tea.* As trite as it may be, Yin Yang is a fitting name for this tea.

*This is my public confession; yes, I use sugar in my tea. Only in my black tea, though. Never in anything else. The coffee drinker in my wants it to be strong, dark and sweet.