Monday, May 21, 2012

Tea Review: East Frisian Blend from K-Teas

A member of my local tea group, San Antonio Tea & Herb Enthusiasts, recently recommended East Frisian black tea to us. That brought to mind the package of East Frisian Blend from K-Teas, as yet untried, sitting in my basket of new aquisitions. Ah, an excuse to have a cup with cream and sugar, after weeks of drinking Chinese single origin leaves in their plain glory. Not only did I have a lovely rich cup of this black tea, I took the opportunity to have a couple of wedges of buttery shortbread, too.

For those who are unfamiliar with East Frisian black tea, here's some background information from the Tee Gschwendner website: "It may be somewhat daring to call East Frisia (A region of northwest Germany bordering the Netherlands and the North Sea) a 'Nation' and its tea the '“National Drink' but East Frisians are avid tea drinkers and the whole process of brewing and drinking tea can take on the dimension of a sacred ritual. All East Frisian blends have a strong Second Flush Assam content, mixed with quite small amounts of teas from Sumatra, Java, and Ceylon. These blends, peculiar to East Frisia, are drunk with the addition of a lump of kluntje (a large white rock candy sugar) and a small spoonful of cream in each cup. The locals refer to tea made this way with the trilling alliteration 'n lekker Koppke Tee' (a delicious cup of tea). The flavor is malty, strong, spicy, and highly aromatic. Protocol demands that the tea must never be stirred in the cup, because the true sensory experience comes in three layers: First the cream (sky), then the tea infusion (water) and finally the sweetness of the sugar (land)."

For an authentic two-minute visual primer on the subject, check out this video on You Tube.

The dry leaf of K-Teas' East Frisian Blend is lightly peppered with golden tips, an indication of the presence of young buds. It's aroma is sweet, rich and toasty, with a faint note of tobacco. I weighed out three grams (two teaspoons) and prepared it according to package instructions: steeped for five minutes in eight ounces of boiling water. The resulting liquor was deep amber in color, but not as dark as I thought it might be.

Tasting the tea, the malt aspect was prominent, as expected, and the tobacco aspects noted in the aroma were nicely echoed in the flavor. I didn't find anything strongly fruity to comment upon, but rather more earthy influences such as walnut, cinnamon and carob pod. The Indonesian tea contributed sweetness with a bit of citrus sparkle.

What surprised me was the smoothness of the blend. From the description, I'd expected a fair amount of pungency and even some tannic bite, but it just wasn't there. Elements of bitterness and astringency were nowhere to be found. This blend is quite drinkable on its own, without additives of any sort.

Not having the heavy cream and rock sugar to finish my cup in the traditional manner, I substituted a big dose of non-dairy creamer and a squirt of light agave syrup. It really had to be stirred, alas, so the experience of "sky, water and land" eluded me. I can envision it being really wonderful, though, and hope to try it in the Frisian style one day. As it was, the additives did nearly overwhelm the tea, since it lacked the tannin and spice to cut through the fat and sugar. To get a decidedly strong tea from this particular batch, more leaf and a longer steep would be in order. This tea came from 2011 crops. The rains that year were plentiful in India and thereabouts, which may help to explain why the leaf turned out milder than expected. The caffeine content seemed to be adequate, though, as it did it's job of launching me for the day pretty well.

I did a second steep on my three grams of leaf. I poured hot water into the mug to pre-heat it before dumping it out, popping in the brew basket and pouring the boiling water on for a second time. I set a saucer over the cup to hold in the heat, and furthered the process by draping a towel over the whole setup. I let the second steeping go for eight minutes. The resulting second cup was not quite as tasty as the first, of course, but it was plenty good enough to drink. Despite the long steep, it was not bitter or astringent, continuing to be as good-natured as the first time around. This time, I opted to add only a large dollop of apricot jam, as one might do when drinking a Russian black tea blend. This added a bright, fruity flavor and a thick, slippery texture along with its innate sweetness.

Examining the steeped leaf revealed that it consists predominantly of small leaves and tips, so it may have been hand-picked, for the most part. The pickings have been chopped into small pieces, indicative of a CTC (chop, tear, curl) manufacturing process rather than an orthodox (whole leaf) one. The presence of stems is not necessarily bad. I'm a "tea muncher" (try it yourself) and I can testify that often the stems are the juciest, sweetest components. This is most true when the stems come from the newly-grown tips of the tea bush. The older stems, further down, are woody and less desirable.

Although this tea is rich, smooth, and of good quality, I gave it only four stars because it didn't live up to its name. It lacked the punch, flavor-wise I was expecting from it, and if I were an East Frisian, that would be disappointing.

Your comments and questions are most welcome. Questions are usually answered within 24 hours.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Tea Review: Organic Anji Bai Cha from ok-best-beauty

Despite its contradictory name, anji bai cha is made with the green tea process, and should be treated as a green tea. It was given the name, anji bai cha, meaning “anji white tea,” because it is picked from the white tea varietal of camellia sinensis and because the tea is a very light, luscious, high-grown green tea. Anji bai cha contains one of the highest levels of the calming amino acid l-theanine of any tea.

I procured this supply of organic anji bai cha from an eBay seller, ok-best-beauty, who shipped it direct to me from China. It was picked in Anji, Zhejiang Province. You can locate this seller's products by restricting your eBay search to items from Seller ID: "ok-best-beauty" when setting your search options. Then go to the seller's eBay store and search for anji bai cha. It is currently for sale at this listing:

This is a scrumptious, organic anji bai cha. This tea is picked in the Spring. My purchase was made a year ago, and the tea has been stored since then in small well-sealed portions in the freezer or refrigerator. So, even though it is a year old, it is still quite good. It is so tender and delicious that I always eat the steeped leaves afterwards as I would any nutritious cooked vegetable.

The dry leaf is small, thin and flat, a lovely bright green. The color is a wee bit darker than it was when it was first purchased. The leaves are all very tiny. When you consider that the white tea varietial of camellia sinensis can grow some rather large leaves, you realize how early in Spring the tea must have been picked. The tea liquor is very clear and the green has a slight, sort of neon character which I think comes from the early picking and the high elevation. The photos do not display the radiant color of the liquid tea sufficiently to capture this elusive element.

Using 175F water, I steeped 5 grams of leaf in a 3-ounce glass pot for a total of 8 steeps. Times starting at 1 minute, extending to 3-5 min for the last steeps. That's a yield of over 20 ounces of tea. Sometimes I steep a larger pot and ice it ... so thirst-quenching. My little tea pet is a turtle handmade of clay. She enjoys having water or tea poured over her. Goddess Guan Yin oversees the the proceedings. The bamboo mat lies over a stainless steel tray with a reservoir which catches the spilled fluids. It is a celebration of water and leaves.

The initial steep or two are not my favorite; sometimes I toss them out. This is a “Hong Qing Lu Cha” (baked to dry green tea) and perhaps it is that process which creates the effect that the first couple of steeps are not as luscious as the following ones. At first, I get some astringency that is mild, yet not really pleasant to my palate. This dryness is in sharp contrast to the fresh, cooling slickness of later steeps.

I like the nutty tones of the flavor. Compared to another famously-nutty flat-baked Spring green tea, 'long jing' aka 'lung ching' aka 'dragonwell,' anji bai cha is a less fussy steeper with similar aroma and flavor profile but lighter and jucier. Given a choice between the two, I would usually pick the anji bai cha. I also enjoy the citrus notes, simultaneously tangy and creamy, and the great throat-moistening qualities of the tea. The high levels of l-theanine, a calming amino acid, give it positive marks in the health category.

Historical Note: Anji Bai Cha is the first and the only white tea tree variety that was recorded in the Chinese tea literature of the Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD).