Tag Archives: tea review

Black tea: Earl Grey

Earl Grey

Fragrant and special. Do not consume daily.
Black tea* » Indian** » Ceylon teas (Sri Lanka), ★★★

Earl Grey is a Sri Lankan (Ceylon) tea blended with highly-fragrant bergamot oil.

The blending process is crucial to the final taste, and every tea manufacturer will blend their Earl Grey differently. This blend, from T2 in Australia, is particularly pungent.

Unfortunately, bergamot oil is slightly toxic. Studies have shown that it interferes with any medicines you might be taking, and makes your skin blush and sunburn more easily. Check this example from Wikipedia:

In one case study, a patient who consumed four litres of Earl Grey tea per day reported muscle cramps, which were attributed to the function of the bergapten in bergamot oil as a potassium channel blocker. The symptoms subsided upon reducing his consumption of Earl Grey tea to one litre per day.

I thus remove two stars. Drink it only occasionally.

That said, Earl Grey pairs well with either milk (best in winter) or a slice of lemon (very refreshing in summer). It suits traditional, British tea/garden party in summer, and ices well, too!

I’m don’t usually support adulterated tea (see my reviews of Gorgeous Geisha or Ginger Baimudan) but I do like Earl Grey. This is one of few tea-innovations that, taste-wise, the West should be proud of—even if it isn’t good for your health. ★★★

* It’s technically not a Scented Tea because the fragrances have been blended with the leaf and not infused.

** The “Indian” branch of my Tea Types 2012 chart represents teas from the Indian subcontinent (of which Sri Lanka and three Indian regions are all sub-categories). It’s geographically rational, but politically wrong. I do this because tea trees don’t care about politics.

Green tea: Japanese Sencha

Japanese Sencha

Light, refreshing and minty-cool.
Green tea » Japanese » Sun-grown, ★★★
Also known as: 煎茶, Super Sencha

Sencha, or 煎茶 (literally “steamed tea”) constitutes 80% of the tea drunk in Japan. That’s understandable—it’s a very good, yet moderately-priced tea that’s uncomplicated enough for everyday consumption.

The warm, kelpy flavour we’d expect of a steamed, Japanese tea is masked in this by a unique minty flavour. The result is cool and refreshing, not warm and vegetal.

Compare this tea with Chinese-grown Sencha (to be reviewed tomorrow) to see the difference terroir makes to a tea.

Like millions of Japanese, you could make this your everyday green tea. ★★★★★

 

Oolong tea: Oriental Beauty

Oriental Beauty

Darjeeling’s cousin. Light, fruity and heavily-oxidised for an oolong.
Oolong tea » Traditional » Taiwan, ★
Also known as: 东方美人茶, Dongfang Meiren Cha

Oriental Beauty is very highly oxidised, with a few furry tips included. The dry leaf looks a little like two teas blended together. And the taste more closely resembles a light, fruity black tea (such as Darjeeling) than an oolong. A quick look at this tea’s Wikipedia page helps us to explain why:

“Dongfang meiren is the chhiⁿ-sim tōa-phàⁿ (青心大冇) cultivar grown without pesticides to encourage a common pest, the tea green leafhopper (Jacobiasca formosana), to feed on the leaves, stems, and buds. These insects suck the phloem juices of the tea stems, leaves, and buds, producing monoterpene diol and hotrienol which give the tea its unique flavor. The buds then turn white along the edges which gives the tea its alternate name, white tip oolong. The insect bites start the oxidation of the leaves and tips and add a sweet note to the tea.” — Wikipedia.

I can feel the muscatel flavour (reminiscent of grape skin), and a fruitiness similar to that of fruit infusions (or “fruit teas”) in later brews. The medium-tannin, low-caffeine taste lasts for many hours on your tongue after drinking.

Oriental Beauty would appeal to playful tea drinkers. These are the tea-drinkers who like to add fruit, nuts, popcorn and milky flavours to the leaf, or even create their own tea-blends. In producing this tea, the farmers have done exactly that: they’ve introduced insect species with the specific intention of altering the tea’s flavour. Personally, I prefer simplicity.

I’ll give this tea two stars, but those who prefer black teas, dark teas, fruit teas and rooibos infusions could possibly give it all five. ★★

Black tea: Ceylon FBOPFEXSP

Ceylon FBOPFEXSP

Milk chocolate taste with light, smokey notes and a nonsense acronym attached.
Black tea » Indian* » Ceylon teas (Sri Lanka), ★★★★

This tea tastes a little harder than the softer Assam teas, especially the nutty-chocolatey Assam from Nonaipara Estate.

First, you’ll notice a milk chocolatey taste and mouthfeel. It’s pleasant and would handle lemon or milk and sugar very well. Traditional, British tea-drinkers would love this Ceylon.

Second, you’ll feel a very slight smokiness that becomes a little more evident in later brews (as the sweetness wanes). It’s not overpoweringly smokey—it’s not a smoked tea. By comparison, the smokey taste is on a similar level to that of Gunpowder Green (another unsmoked tea).

I have no clue as to what those letters in “Ceylon FBOPFEXSP” stand for. That’s not because I don’t understand the grading nomenclature, but because there is no such acronym for describing a grade of tea. Google the acronym on its own and you’ll be directed to the product page for my local tea store, T2. I’m wondering whether “Ceylon FBOPFEXSP” is just another clever marketing trick by T2. Bless them.

I would definitely buy this tea. ★★★★

* the “Indian” branch of my Tea Types 2012 chart represents teas from the Indian subcontinent (of which Sri Lanka and three Indian regions are all sub-categories). It’s geographically rational, but politically wrong. But tea trees don’t care about politics.

Scented tea: White Monkey Jasmine

White Monkey Jasmine

Overwhelmingly thick, smooth and fragrant. Pralines and crème liqueurs.
Scented tea » Jasmine » Traditional, ★★★

I never expected a traditional jasmine tea to have such a heavy scent. Yet, I feel a powerful praline and crème liqueur taste in this brew.

I say “liqueur” because the vapour feel (茶气) is thick and heavy, rather like breathing in over a shot of alcohol. It’s unique to find such a deep aroma in tea.

The jasmine scent here is a rich one, not a light, floral one. The aroma closer resembles praline than flowers—again, unusual for a jasmine tea.

It’s a good-quality tea, and many people would love it. But the 茶气 is just too heavy for me to enjoy regularly. While the overly-heavy aroma dissuades me from buying White Monkey Jasmine, there are plenty of people who would select it especially for that trait. ★★★

Green tea: Biluochun

Biluochun

Tippy and delicate with light citrus notes. An everyday green tea.
Green tea » Chinese » Basket-fired » Tender leaf, ★★★★
Also known as: 碧螺春, Pi Lo Chun, Green Snail Spring, 吓煞人香, Xiasharenxiang

Biluochun is a lighter green tea with a yellowish green liquor (I’m going to start using the word liquor, 茶汤 in Chinese, to describe what I used to call the ‘brew’). The dry leaves are long, curled and so delicate that they snap easily when you pick them up.

Some people note ‘chesnuts’ and ‘citrus’ among the aromas present. Biluochun tastes light with hints of sweetness, and it doesn’t bitter easily.

Biluochun is another delicate green tea suitable for everyday drinking. ★★★★

Green tea: Organic Genmaicha with Matcha

Organic Sencha Sprinkles

Toy!
Green tea » Japanese » Shade-Grown, ★★★★
Also known as: 抹茶入り玄米茶, Organic Sencha Sprinkles

Genmaicha with Matcha is actually three products mixed together:

  1. Sencha (煎茶) — a steamed Japanese tea with a fresh seaweed flavour
  2. Dry rice (干米) — gives a roasted, nutty, popcorn flavour which dominates the brew (these first two ingredients together constitute Genmaicha).
  3. Matcha (抹茶) — powdered Gyokuro, which gives a cloudy, sweet, invigorating dew-like infusion that’s extremely nutritious. I love Matcha!

The first brew is fluorescent green and tastes of Matcha (sweet dew). The powder then washes off the bright green rice pieces almost immediately, revealing their natural brown colour—you’ll also see them puff up as they absorb water.

The second brew is less sweet and more kelpy. The brew looks a little less cloudy, but still has a fluorescent green tinge from the Matcha that hid somewhere in the Sencha leaves.

Subsequent brews taste of Genmaicha, then eventually just of dry rice pieces, which survive seemingly infinite brewing—or until you eat them. This tea just keeps changing in your cup.

This is a fun tea, a plaything, and is more interesting than Genmaicha on its own. But even though Genmaicha with Matcha has a long history in Japan, I think this tea is too complicated for everyday consumption. For everyday consumption, choose Longjing, Meng Ding Huang Ya or Biluochun instead. ★★★★

Green tea: Matcha

Matcha

Feels like green creatine.
Green tea » Japanese » Shade-Grown, ★★★★★
Also known as: 抹茶

Brewed simply in a glass with a spoon, Matcha reminded me of taking creatine powder that doesn’t quite dissolve in water. I usually care deeply about how tea is brewed, but Matcha needed too much specialist equipment, so I went without. The right-sized bowl and the hand-made Matcha whisk sell for over $80 per set here in Melbourne so I didn’t buy them. I used a spoon and my usual tea-glass, and had what felt like an energy drink that was unpleasant to swallow.

Brewed as part of a beautiful, calming Matcha ceremony, though, this tea is totally different. The gentle, meticulous process of preparing Matcha feels like meditation. Using the appropriate equipment (the right-sized bowl and the hand-made bamboo whisk) give the Matcha a pleasantly smooth mouthfeel with a froth that amplifies the flavour of the drink (rather like that of espresso coffee). Whisking the Matcha properly also removes all the unpleasant, tiny clumps of tea-powder that a teaspoon would fail to remove. The ceremony makes this tea worth two more of my stars.

Watch the a demonstration of the ceremony here:

Watch the ceremony itself here:

The fact that it’s shade-grown and then powdered means that it’s richer in everything (antioxidants, caffeine, catechins, vitamins and protein—yes, protein) than all other teas. It’s a natural energy drink that stimulates you much more than brewed teas because you’re effectively swallowing all of the leaf.

Matcha can be brewed two ways: thick (濃茶, koicha) and thin (薄茶, usucha). Methods of each preparation method are detailed here.

The Matcha ceremony is worthwhile. Even if you don’t kneel on the floor and brew it in traditional dress, at least fork out a good Matcha set to do this drink justice. Matcha sets are $80 in stores, or just $25 on eBay. ★★★★★

Green tea: Gyokuro

Gyokuro (玉露)

The refreshing, spinachy precursor to Matcha (a five-star tea).
Green tea » Japanese » Shade-Grown, ★★★
Also known as: 玉露, Jewel Dew, Jade Dew.

Gyokuro and its powdered form, Matcha, are acquired tastes.

The first thing you’ll notice about Gyokuro is its unusually dark green colour. Gyokuro is produced from shade-grown tea plants, which increase their chlorophyll content to compensate for low levels of sunlight. The result is a very dark, spinachy, vegetal tea that’s much richer in nutrients than many sun-grown teas (that’s most teas).

Gyokuro and Matcha both taste vegetal and kelpy, and the brews are identically fluorescent green. Because the Matcha is powdered, and the Gyokuro leaves are so brittle, pieces of both of these teas inevitably escape your filter and enter the brew. Brewed directly in a cup (as I did), both Gyokuro and Matcha teas can feel like medicine; but brewed properly, with the appropriate whisk and ritual ceremony, both of of them can be delicious. See the ceremony demonstrated, then performed, in my next post.

Gyokuro is slightly spinachy with a dew-like, sweet aftertaste. It has a fascinating leaf shape, leaf colour and infusion colour, but still lacks the uniqueness and ritual importance of Matcha. It’s an interesting tea, but take Matcha instead if you can. ★★★

Black tea: Qimen Gongfu

Ning Hong Jing Hao

More refined stimulating breakfast brew that’s still as light as Rooibos.
Black tea » Chinese » Anhui Qimen teas, ★★★★★
Also known as: 祁门功夫茶, Ning Hong Jing Hao, Keemun/Qimen Congou/Gongfu (or any combination).

I’ve been lucky enough to receive not just Qimen Hongcha, which is a great tea, but also this Qimen Congou, which is the finest grade of Qimen available. Qimen Hongcha uses only the smallest, most tender leaves, and the dry leaf has a more powerful aroma than Qimen Hongcha.

Brewed side-by-side, the liquors (tea liquids) look exactly the same (amber or honey-coloured). The aroma of the Qimen Congou, however, is more floral and less woody than the Qimen Hongcha—even though both teas are very similar, and very light. It’s only by comparing these two five-star teas side-by-side that I can acknowledge their subtle differences in taste.

Qimen Congou is a little lighter, has more floral notes and a subtle dark chocolate aftertaste. The sweet aftertaste (回甘) is stronger in this tea than in Qimen Hongcha.

Nomenclature tip:

功夫 = Congou = Gongfu = Kung Fu = anything that’s done particularly well (including martial arts and tea).

Given a choice between the two teas, I’d choose the Qimen Congou every time. But each of these teas is delightful on its own. I recommend buying the Qimen Hongcha or buying both and brewing them simultaneously. Qimen Hongcha and Qimen Congou sell for $11 and $22 in Melbourne, respectively. ★★★★★

Green tea: Jade Ring Jasmine

Jade Ring Jasmine

Tastes too weak.
Scented tea » Jasmine » Traditional,  ★★

Dry leaf Jade Ring Jasmine has no fragrance but the leaf shape intrigues me.

Brewed as described on the packaging, this tea looks like water. It has no flavour and no aroma but does carry hints of a fudge-like aftertaste.

Vendor’s brewing directions: “Place 4-5 rings into a cup. Pour over water at 80 degrees Celsius and brew for at least 7 minutes. For a pot, use 4 rings per cup.”

Four to five rings looked like too little, so I decided to brew this tea my own way, as described below:

jameskennedybeijing’s brewing directions: Place 15-20 rings into a cup. Pour over water at 80 degrees Celsius and brew gongfu style.

Brewed stronger, the broth is still almost colourless. There is a feint aroma, but it isn’t one of jasmine. The sweet aftertaste is replaced by a bizarrely burned, smoky flavour, which is interesting but not pleasant. I prefer brewing according to the vendor’s instructions.

Instead of this tea, I recommend Rolling Clouds for its leaf shape (great for gifts), and Organic China Jasmine for its flavour (great for drinking at home). Jasmine Pearl (Buddha’s Tears) has a balance of both characteristics (taste and interesting leaf shape), yet has a much higher price tag to match.

I definitely wouldn’t buy Jade Ring Jasmine. Nor would I send it as a gift. Maybe I just haven’t yet learned to brew it properly? ★★

Green tea: “Rolling Clouds”

Rolling Clouds

A great gift tea, or a talking point to brew with guests.
Green tea » Chinese » Basket-Fired » Pearl leaf balls, ★★★

This tea’s obvious selling point is its shape. These beautiful, 1-cm, hand-rolled balls resemble calligraphic ink swirls on a page, or, as the name suggests, Rolling Clouds. To my liking, this tea is one of the few unfurling tea varieties that isn’t flavoured with flowers.

Brewed, this tea tastes slightly sweet and slightly floral, but otherwise unremarkable. Its speciality, again, is its leaf shape, which serves not only as a talking point, but also slows down the unfurling of the leaves, giving rise to a longer-lasting brew (耐泡). This makes Rolling Clouds an ideal catalyst for an afternoon of conversation with friends and family. Note that the brew is exceptionally light in colour, but not in taste.

If anyone knows the Chinese name for this tea, then please let me know. The best I’ve found is a Russian website that calls it “卷云”, but that sounds a little inauthentic to me.

I wouldn’t buy this tea for myself, but I would buy it as a gift. I’d also bring it with me when visiting family or friends. ★★★

Green tea: Longjing

Long Jing

Grassy, nutty everyday tea (with surprising hints of cream and chocolate!)
Green tea » Chinese » Pan-Fired » Tender leaf » West Lake Dragon Well, ★★★★★
Also known as: 西湖龙井, Lung Ching, Dragon Well.

I love Longjing tea. During the Olympic Games in 2008, I visited Longjing village, which spans several valleys just a short bus ride to the west of Hangzhou. Tea-farmers let me wander through the hillside plantations, even eat a few leaves, then come back to their veranda for a tea-tasting session. Perfect!

The showed me three grades of Longjing tea, priced at 10, 30 and 50 RMB per 50 grams (about $3, $9 and $15 per 100g, respectively). Each one was brewed in a separate glass, and they showed me the differences between the rougher, more astringent grades and the tender, finer grades with intact, uniform leaves. The cheaper grades, they said, were suitable for everyday personal consumption, and the finer grades should be chosen if you’re buying it as a gift.

I conversed, deliberated and walked away with about half a kilo of tea, which lasted me for an entire year of undergraduate study!

Today’s Longjing tea-tasting session was much less remarkable. There was only one grade available at my local tea vendor, T2. (Unfortunately, they don’t brew tea in-store; nor do they have a veranda overlooking the tea plantation. Never mind.) I noted the classic grassy, nuttiness that I love about Longjing, but also found hints of a creamy, chocolatey finish in T2’s variety. The nuttiness was also more accentuated than usual. Maybe the taste difference can be attributed to differences in the water (Melbourne tap water vs. Nongfu Spring).

Longjing is an everyday green tea. In fact, it’s the #1 most popular tea in China. Millions of factory workers, taxi drivers, builders and students carry large flasks of Longjing tea with them, which they can re-brew with hot water all day. I’ll likely be taking this tea to university next year, too. Half a kilo should do. ★★★★★

Green tea: Young Hyson

Young Hyson (Rain Tea)

As refreshing as equatorial rain.
Green tea » Chinese » Basket-Fired » Chunmee (“Hyson”) teas, ★★★★
Also known as: 雨茶, Rain tea

Young Hyson is the most prized tea in the Chunmee family of green teas. What makes Young Hyson unique is that it’s picked “before the rains begin”, i.e. while the leaves are still tender and relatively high in nutrients (think how “baby vegetables” are always sweeter than the bigger ones). Production volume is therefore low and Young Hyson is more expensive than the other, more mundane Chunmee teas. It sells for $11 per 100g here in Melbourne.

Chunmee is a family of teas also known as “Hyson” teas. Phillip Hyson was an English tea merchant who was one of the first to import these teas to the UK. Chunmee, strangely, is called 眉茶 (méichá) in Chinese.

To clarify:

Tea family: 眉茶 = Chunmee = Hyson teas = Eyebrow teas.

Tea: 雨茶 = Yucha = Young Hyson = Rain tea.

The latter (tea) is the finest specimen of the former (category of teas), picked before the rains begin.

Young Hyson is sometimes graded further into subdivisions (such as First, Second and Third Young Hyson). I have never seen these subdivisions in tea markets and have therefore omitted them from my Tea Taxonomy diagram.

To complicate things further, Young Hyson dates back to the 17th century, when it had a pearl leaf shape (珠茶) rather than today’s eyebrow leaf shape, and was thus not a Chunmee at all.

Tea Taxonomy 2012 Snippet [jameskennedybeijing]
I am about to update my Tea Taxonomy diagram with a more comprehensive, more visually-pleasing version. Last year’s Tea Taxonomy diagram is still by far my most popular blog post! Click to view (the old one).
Young Hyson tastes robust but not overpowering. It survives many brews (耐泡) and develops a little more sweetness in later brews. The dry leaf colour is unique, too, with a slight grey-cyan tinge similar only to that of Ginseng Gunpowder. Very unique.

This tea’s dewy-sweetness feels as refreshing as warm, equatorial rain, when torrential downpours bring out vegetal aromas from the forest floor. Young Hyson stands out among the more mundane Chunmee teas as a higher-grade, more pungent variety.

Young Hyson is another refreshing and robust all-day green tea. ★★★★

Black tea: Qimen Hongcha

Qimen Hongcha

Stimulating breakfast brew that’s as light as a Rooibos tisane.
Black tea » Chinese » Anhui Qimen teas, ★★★★★
Also known as: 祁门红茶, Keemun, 祁红, Qihong.

Qimen Hongcha was the original “English Breakfast Tea” before it became too expensive for the mass market. The British purchased so much of this tea in the 19th century that the price rocketed within a couple of years after they first imported it. Today, Qimen Hongcha tea costs around $10 per 100g—a price that is highly justified.

Qimen Hongcha is delightful to drink. It has light, sweet, floral overtones, but (like Rooibos) lacks undertones completely. This is one of few teas where I can clearly taste the water in the brew! There’s no astringency or bitterness, and even though many tasters note smokiness in the brew, I couldn’t feel any. The subtle fruitiness resembles dark, sugary fruits like figs and sultanas, whose lingering aftertaste develops charmingly on the palate.

Qimen Hongcha makes a great breakfast tea. It awakens you without feeling heavy—in fact, it’s as light on the palate as a Rooibos tisane. Brew it before a day’s work and you’ll feel calm and alert, with a pleasantly sweet, lingering aftertaste that stays until lunch. I love it.

I tend to prefer white, green, and the greener oolong teas, but there are a few more oxidised teas, such as Fenghuang DancongDejoo Estate Assam and this tea, Qimen Hongcha, that even I am in love with. ★★★★★

Green tea: “Green Rose” by T2

Green Rose by T2

Innovation isn’t always good. Add fruit to MUESLI, not to TEA.
Green tea » Japanese » Sun-grown, ★★

I get lots of teas from T2. They stock a good range of teas, and they’ve built a strong, trendy brand around tea, for which I thank them for their hard work greatly. They also give out free samples.

However, some of their products are a little too trendy. It feels as though someone in the T2 lab has been experimenting with mixing bowls without paying full consideration to the people who’ll actually buy and drink these oddities. I like Sencha. I also like fruit. But mixing them together is disrespectful to all parties involved (especially the ancient Chinese, whose wisdom tells us to consume tea and fruit separately). Remember Gorgeous Geisha, anyone?

The Japanese wouldn’t drink T2’s “Green Rose”, either. Most likely, they’d brew all the foreign objects (currants, mango, papaya and roses) with apples and crystal sugar at 100°C, in what I’ll call a Fruit Infusion.

If I bought this, I would pain-stakingly remove all the oddities and put them in my muesli, then drink the resulting Sencha separately. “Green Rose” by T2 is two decent beverages blended and thus ruined. Like wine and milk. Or coffee and Coke. Don’t buy it. ★★