Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Hong Yue arrives in time for a helluva yule

Just in time for Christmas, it's one of the most unusual and intriguing teas I've tasted all year.

New from Rishi — quickly becoming one of my favorite tea companies, based in Milwaukee just north of me here in Chicago, and now the tea provider for my neighborhood coffee shop (hooray!) — is a Hong Yue tea, something I've read about before but never had the opportunity to try. It's a tea that results from a complicated lineage and processing: Assam plants brought to Taiwan from Japan in the ’20s, then blended with local varietals, then processed sometimes like an oolong and sometimes like a fully oxidized black tea.

When you read the description of how this tea tastes, you'd be forgiven for thinking it's a flavored blend. Rishi bills its Hong Yue as "a distinctive aroma of clove, wintergreen, camphor, red date, raisin and cinnamon." But the only ingredient is tea. A warm, red brew delivers all those scents and some of the flavors. It's not just marketing, they're really all there. Sounds kind of gross on paper (camphor?!), but it's an alluring aroma and a winning taste. The scent brings the minty camphor and the two fruits — the date is heavy, and maybe a kind of paraffin smell — but the flavor is less of a jumble. It comes on confidently, and it's jammy, like a cup of figgy pudding. But it's remarkably even-tempered, unless you make the mistake I did and brew the first pot without an infuser; as the leaves sit in the water, the brew goes way bitter. But don't give up: this tea stands up to repeat infusions (I did five one afternoon, using my castle cairn pot; Rishi says it's got the stamina for 16) without losing its sting.

I can't wait to begin experimenting with food flavors around this one. A little dark chocolate was a beauty alongside that first pot, and I think it'd be a knockout with some seared pears for dessert. We shall see. Regardless, this one's a stunner, just in time for the best-o'-2010 lists.

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