Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Tea Week: A Myriad of Flavors

When you walk into a tea shop or surf over to a tea website, it can be really daunting seeing all the different types of tea out there if you don't really understand what they mean.  In a nutshell, all tea comes from the same plant (Camellia sinensis), but the timing of when the leaves are picked, and the methods of processing the leaves allow the teas to differ so greatly.  There are about six major classifications of tea, and underneath those umbrellas, there are so many more!  Let's start with the basic types...

This tea is the most prized and generally most expensive.  It is very delicate, and the least processed of all tea leaf varieties.  It is usually the first picked (before the buds open fully) and simply dried in the sun without further processing.  Minimal oxidization and processing retains the most antioxidants and results in the lowest caffeine level of teas. White tea is very mild in flavor and often very floral.  The most delicate white teas should be enjoyed on their own, and not accompanied by foods that can overpower their flavor.

This tea is generally the second mildest, and very high in antioxidants.  The leaves are either wilted or not, lightly pan-fried, steamed or fired in an oven to prevent oxidization and enzyme action.  Green tea has less caffeine than black tea, but more than white. The leaves are often rolled into different shapes before drying. Sencha tea is rolled into fine strands, while gunpowder tea leaves are rolled into pellets.  Great health benefits are usually advertised regarding green tea.

Oolong teas are semi-oxidized, and fall between the unoxidized white and green teas and the fully oxidized black teas.  Oolong tea goes through a wilting stage, and is then bruised to allow oxidization to different degrees.  The resulting chemical changes produce tea with more color and less astringency.  The leaves can range from being almost black to dark green depending on when oxidation is stopped. The longer the leaves are oxidized the closer to black tea they will become.  The final firing allows the oxidization process to stop and dries the leaves.

Black teas are fully oxidized unlike the aforementioned teas.  Once the leaves are picked they are left out in the sun to become slightly wilted. The leaves are then rolled to break open their tissue. The leaves begin to oxidize and ferment. After the oxidation is complete, the tea is fired to dry it and prevent spoilage. Black teas often have the most caffeine.  Many black teas are flavored or served with milk and/or sugar.  Subcategories of black teas can include Assam, Darjeeling, and Ceylon among others.

This is kind of a specialty tea, but deserves its own recognition.  Pu-erh is a semi-oxidized tea leaf, which is the only tea that is capable of aging to benefit its flavor.  The process of making pu-erh is a highly regarded secret, and can only be produced in certain regions.  While unaged and unprocessed pu-erh is technically a type of green tea, ripened or aged pu-erh has occasionally been mistakenly categorized as a subcategory of black tea due to the dark red color of its leaves. However, pu-erh in both its forms has undergone secondary oxidization and fermentation caused both by organisms growing in the tea as well as from free-radical oxidation, thus making it a unique type of tea.  The taste is strong and earthy and is considered to be a tea connoisseur's tea.  Pu-erh also has an ability to counteract rich food and reduce cholesterol.

Herbal teas are not really teas.  They are made with infusions of fruits, flowers, herbs, seeds, roots, etc.  Basically, they can be made with anything other than actual tea leaves, which thus makes them decaffeinated.  Some popular herbal teas include chamomile, mint, and rooibos from South Africa, which means "red bush" and is growing in popularity lately due to its antioxidant benefits. 

Kirkoswald Estate BOP Iced Tea

Now that you have a basic understanding on the differences of these teas, I am happy to share with you some teas from my personal collection that I enjoy and recommend.  Most of my teas have come from Upton Tea Imports, which was recommended to me by Cynthia Gold, the tea sommelier at the Boston Park Plaza.  I have found all of their teas I have tried to be of great quality, personally packaged with my name and the date it was packed along with notes on quantities, water temperature, and timing for perfectly steeping every time.  If you ever get confused, just look on the package and it tells you exactly what to do to get the best cup of tea from those leaves.  They also give you the option of ordering in a zip-lock packet (which is what I usually get since I can squeeze out the air before I seal it) or a tin, which costs a little more but is more aesthetically pleasing, but doesn't lock out the air as well.

Formosa Special White Tea

"The bold leaves of this selection have a somewhat crêpey appearance, a modest compliment of white tips and a fresh, enticing aroma. The light golden-jade cup has delicate hints of fruit, with a balanced, creamy smoothness and a clean, lingering finish."

White tea is incredibly delicate in flavor!  This particular white tea is mild and completely lacks the almost grassy or vegetal flavor that can be found in many green teas. Very refreshing and satisfying when you are seeking something light and smooth.

"One of the finest China green teas is Long-Jing (Dragonwell). The liquor is pale yellow, slightly sweet, and very refreshing."

This is one of my favorite teas!  It has a silky, buttery mouth-feel and a fresh aroma.  I haven't tasted every single variety of green tea out there, but I can honestly say that from what I've experienced Dragonwell is my favorite.  It's easily drinkable and very beneficial to your health.

Moroccan Green Mint

"Gunpowder green tea blended with a generous amount of peppermint."

This is an incredibly refreshing and light tea, both hot and iced.  I love the subtle mint flavor balanced with the somewhat vegetal green tea, along with the bright, fresh aroma.  Simply classic!

Formosa Extra Fancy Oolong

"This selection has a smooth cup with fruity nuances and a sweet highlights. A classic style with notes of peach and chestnuts."

I love drinking this tea when I want something a little stronger and more flavorful then my favorite green tea, but still want something smoother and lighter than a black tea.  It has an incredibly floral aroma (oolongs are often noted for their strong perfume) and is mildly fruity.

Kirkoswald Estate BOP

"The small, broken leaf of this quality tea produces a rich and full cup, with a fresh, inviting aroma. The flavor is smooth and nicely balanced, with just the right amount of pungency, richness, and hints of sweetness."

I used this tea recently to make iced tea (1 1/2 gallons to be exact!).  It is so light and refreshing, both hot and iced.  The flavor is incredibly mild compared to some other black teas and does not require additional sweetener (as far as I'm concerned).  It almost coats your tongue with a silky smooth mouth-feel that I find so common among good quality, mild loose teas.

Extra Bergamot English Earl Grey

"Specially blended for those who prefer a richly scented Earl Grey. Our most popular Earl Grey. Rated "best overall" by the Wall Street Journal's Catalog Critic."

This is one of the few teas I own that I generally prefer to sweeten when I drink it.  It's a very strong flavored tea (it's also very dark if you look at the color, not brown, but black), and I think a little sugar or honey helps bring out the delicious Bergamot flavor.  I also really love this tea for cooking or baking.  This tea is really delicious in ice cream, cookies, truffles, creme brulee, etc.

China Pu-erh Standard

"An affordable black Pu-Erh with a smooth quality and classic earthy flavor notes."

I first tasted Pu-Erh tea in a tea tasting, and was immediately surprised by the rich Earthy aroma.  Honestly, it smells like dirt.  The flavor is rich and Earthy, not sweet at all, but still so flavorful that a sweetener is superfluous.  This is a great tea to enjoy during or after a rich meal when you want to settle your stomach :)  It's also a popular dim sum tea for this reason.

Mariage Frères Marco Polo

I would like to thank my lovely sister for giving me this fabulous tea as a gift recently.  Mariage Frères is considered by many to have the best tea in the world.  It is where Japan Airlines gets their teas for their first class passengers, and where Claridge's of London gets its tea.  They specialize in flavored tea blends, tea scents and other tea products.  The Marco Polo blend is the only one I've tried from this prestigious tea house, thus far.  I can honestly tell you that when I popped open the can lid and peeled back the metal cover sealing in the tea, the fragrance that tickled my nose was probably the best thing I've ever smelled in my life.  There were so many incredibly strong, fruity and floral nuances that it was difficult to put my finger on any of them with any real authority, but all I can say it that I wanted to bathe in that aroma.  Instead, I brewed a pot of tea for my sister and I to share (she gifted the tea to me after all), and couldn't stop inhaling that aroma until I finally touched the tea to my lips.  It was delicious, with a light fruity aftertaste.  I've only enjoyed this tea unsweetened, but in the future I'm going to try a little bit of honey to see if it brings out the sweetness of the fruits more, kind of an experiment to see if I can recognize them better :)  Otherwise, this tea is certainly an investment to tea lovers.  At $20 for 100g, it is far more expensive than any of the teas noted above.  It also comes straight from France, land that I love.  If you want to explore the offerings of Mariage Frères, it will cost you.  You may also have to look online since its not carried in too many stores unless you live in or near a city.  Good luck!


Anonymous said...

Excellent write up on teas, Victoria! The marco polo blend sounds amazing, I would love to try that one especially if I can ever find it!

Victoria K. said...

Thank you! My sister actually got it online from Dean & Deluca. The link is above :)

Lucine said...

You are most welcome, dear sister of mine!! Apparently it was money well spent! What an amazing aroma and flavor!!

Cinnamon-Girl said...

The extra fancy oolong sound delicious! And so does the green mint.

Victoria K. said...

They're both really good :)

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