Monday, October 28, 2013

Tasting Thailand teas

The increasing popularity of tea is propagating the plant in more and more places, and one of the latest areas to nurture and expand a tea industry is Thailand. (Not to be confused with "Thai tea," a sweetened, sometimes spiced, drink usually made from Ceylon teas.)

At a recent local tea event, I was given several samples from Daokrajai, a company producing organic tea on a 550-acre estate in northern Thailand. Two of their blends are worth noting.

First, their red tea is really red. It's 85 percent red (black) tea, 15 percent rosella, a variety of hibiscus common in Thailand. When I opt for herbal teas, I most often look to something with hibiscus in it, as I find it adds a heft often missing from typically dainty herbals. I've actually suspected that a mixture of hibiscus and regular tea might work; after drinking this oddity I can say, it actually does. The tangy fruit flavor of the hibiscus, the razor's edge of bitter and tannin in the tea — it's like mixing berries with chocolate. There's a balance, but it's kind of a tough combo to crack. Even the Daokrajai site admits it's "a confusing combination for the tongue to decipher, making you concentrate on the flavours more intently." The hibiscus came on strong in my sample, as if the ratio was greater than 15 percent, and the hibiscus left a tell-tale red ring at the rim of my cup. This would be a great foil for a mild dessert.

The second sample I'm still trying to get my head around — an herbal called Jiao Gu Lan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum). This plant — a trailing vine — is a common folk remedy in Asia, allegedly with some serious antioxidants. It's one of the strangest flavors I've encountered. The liquor in the cup (a ghastly jaundiced grey) has a soapy odor, and the brewed leaves are large with jagged edges, looking remarkably like real tea. The taste is sharp and surprising, at once bitter but with a sweet edge, as if it was a cup of bitter tea from the bottom of the pot newly sweetened with, say, some stevia. The bitterness camps out right on the tip of the tongue, doing battle between hints of banana, tin, and grass. Folk medicine is the only context in which I could imagine this.

Another heralded Thailand tea estate is Suwirun; see some stunning photos from that plantation here.

Read more about tea in Thailand here (pdf).

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Color correction

For those who take their tea with milk, how carefully do you measure the tea and dairy? Are you eyeballing the ratio of the second ingredient (don't reignite the milk-first debate here, please) and getting inconsistent cups?

Here's a helpful tool for getting the proportions just right: the My Cuppa Tea mug, a white mug with color bands printed on the inside of the rim corresponding to various strengths of milky tea. Pour in the milk until the color of the brew matches the Pantone-like shade of your choice, and you'll have a relatively uniform cup each time.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Tuesday tea tunes: Hellish

From another folksy Lilith, Melissa Warner, here's a song putting forth the preposterous notion that "there's no tea in heaven." Dahling — tea is heaven!

Nothing embeddable, so click here to have a listen.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Monthly clubs, and Tea Horse

Years ago I joined a wine club (through a then-trendy magazine that, go figure, still exists), a monthly subscription service that delivered two choice bottles of California reds to my doorstep in a particularly dry Midwest wine desert. I thus learned about wine in the best way possible — by drinking varieties I otherwise would not find or think to buy. The same lesson applies to tea, and may be even more applicable. If you're going to sample teas, you want to sample good teas, smartly selected. A monthly club can be just the ticket.

Many good clubs are out there — Golden Moon runs a good one, with special attention to seasonal flavors; Teavana has a few, depending on whether you love or scorn Teavana; 52 Teas used to run a weekly service for comparable pricing, though it often included ridiculous flavored blends like chocolate-and-bacon pu-erh; or I've heard praise of the top-drawer Teance clubs.

Recently, I was sent some samples from a new subscription service, Tea Horse. The British company, named for the famed overland route through Asia, ships monthly taster boxes containing four teas. The kicker: many of the teas are selected with guidance from Tim Clifton, a longtime tea expert in the UK and a regular leader of tea classes alongside Jane Pettigrew.

The samples I received were pretty good; I'll zero in on two. The first-flush Darjeeling, from the remote Jungpana estate, remains an impressive traditional tea. I tasted this some weeks ago when it was still fresh (apologies for the writing delay), and it's remarkable how strong the aroma comes on in the cup — a surprise for such an early tea. The musky taste barrels on, too, with the confidence and strength of a second-flush. The packet suggests a nuttiness, which I didn't get; the floral notes, though, yes, very — rosy, but not (ironically) a tea rose or something similarly sweet. The floral notes really mellowed in the pot, too, so that the last couple of cups were like sipping from the rim of a honeysuckle blossom. A fine tea.

Readers here may know I'm a fool for Keemun, so the Tea Horse Mao Feng merely faced a tough tongue to impress. Its flavor is strong but hollow, lacking the subtle wisps of smoke and/or spice I'm used to. But it's a definite two-stage rocket — a Darjeeling musk at the end, tying off some initial hints of cocoa and fruit (not citrus, but something fleshy, like a peach or a mango). Handsome enough.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Drink to me

Paul McCartney has a new record out this week, simply titled "New." Mark Guarino, a great critic who took my post at the Chicago Sun-Times, says the new tunes reinforce Paul's sometimes unheralded tradition as an artist who "has quietly pushed the boundaries one would not expect from rock royalty who might otherwise opt for reeling in the years."

Really, I'd just been looking for an excuse to post this photo of Macca mugging with a sad mug of road tea.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Tuesday tea tunes: 'Red, white, black or green

I'm reprimanding myself for not including this song in the lineup much earlier, given that the singer is a treasured but wayward friend and the cover of the album from whence it comes was designed by my partner. The band is the Mudville Project, an erstwhile alt-country band from Tulsa led by Greg Klaus, and the song is "The Tea," a slow, moody rumination on a steeping life.