Wednesday, April 1, 2009

REVIEW: Keemun, Chicago Coffee and Tea Exchange

(This review will be in several parts on this topic. I wrote extensively, hit the wrong key, and lost what I had done. Now I'll post in pieces so I can't lose too much time or work. Hurrah, I'm writing a serial! Like Oliver Twist! I'm sure you all will be checking in hourly to see how the review is coming along.)

Surprise, delight, dismay. "Keemun!" These were my emotions yesterday, when I discovered a package of tea sitting in the back of my tea cabinet when I had just drink my last cup of the "good stuff," and was rummaging around to find something. I was surprised to find it hidden back there; delighted that I didn't now need to drive a goodly distance to buy some more; and dismayed because I typically try to drink my tea in six months so it doesn't go stale. I can't stand stale tea, which creates, more often than not, an indifferent brew that makes me think, "Meh, why bother?" This tea must have been back there just about six months. I was concerned this would be one of those pots.

I typically buy in bulk from either Chicago Coffee and Tea Exchange or Tea Gschwendner. CTTE used to be my one and only place to buy tea when I lived near their shop, but now that I've discovered the Internet, I am branching out to other sources, as well. CTTE gives very good customer service, and their teas are what I would consider very good, second-tier teas. That is to say, they'll sell a couple kinds of Darjeelings, several oolongs, and a number of other varieties of "true," unflavored teas; but the teas won't necessarily come from an individual tea garden or flush that I can identify.

And so: a package titled, Keemun. Hm, not enough information to go on. I've drunk this before, but it's been awhile, and I've been trying to educate my palate a little bit more consciously since then. Time to read up a bit, while I drink.

The Coffee & Tea Exchange Web site says:
Famous for its superb flavor and aroma, a fine and twisted leaf with a complex flavor and distinctive aroma.

CONTINUING: A bit of history about Keemun.

I did a bit of research. Apparently (British people, take note), Keemun tea is the primary ingredient in English Breakfast tea blends. Zoka Coffee ( ) says the following:

Origin Notes

Keemun is produced in the Qimen County of Huangshan Shi, in Anhui (Anhwei) province of China. "Keemun" was actually the English spelling for "Qimen" during the colonial era.

"Keemun has a relatively short history. It was first produced in 1875 by a failed civil servant, Yu Quianchen, after he traveled to Fujian province to learn the secrets of black tea production. Prior to that, only green tea was made in Anhui. The result exceeded his expectations, and the excellent Keemun tea quickly gained popularity in England, and became the most prominent ingredient of the English Breakfast tea blend."

AND MY WORRIES that the tea would go bad quickly were also set to rest: English Tea Store says the following:

"Of all the China black teas available Keemun Panda #1 is probably one of the best known. Keemun is one of the congou-type teas; meaning it requires a great deal of gongfu, (disciplined skill) to make into fine taut strips without breaking the leaves. Interestingly the characters in the written Chinese script for time and labor are the same as those used for ‘gongfu’. It is often said that a properly produced Keemun such as Panda #1 is one of the finest teas in the world with a complex aromatic and penetrating character often compared to burgundy wines. Traditionally keemuns were used in English Breakfast tea.

"Keemun is one the best-keeping black teas. Fine specimens will keep for years if stored properly and take on a mellow winey character.

"The name Keemun comes from Qimen county in southern Anhui province, where almost all the mountains are covered with tea bushes. Qimen county produced only green tea until the mid 1870’s. Around that time a young man in the civil service lost his job. Despite being totally heartbroken and completely embarrassed by his shame, he remembered what his father told him - ‘A skill is a better guarantor of a living than precarious officialdom’. Following this advice, the young man packed up his courage and his bags to travel to Fujian Province to learn the secrets of black tea manufacturing. Upon his return to Qimen in 1875 he set up three factories to produce black tea. The black tea method was perfectly suited to the tea leaves produced in this warm moist climate with well drained sandy soil. Before long, the superb flavor of Keemuns became very popular around the world."

I LIKE that story! Failed bureaucrat goes out and creates a world-class tea.

BACK to the review. See what happens, if I get interrupted by events (and deleting my post prematurely)? I dropped a few hundred words, and still didn't get around to discussing the tea itself.

Dry leaves: very dark black, almost dusty appearance. Tightly twisted leaf. It has a nicely sharp smell.

Wet leaves: Actually, quite dull smelling. Of course, wet leaves don't really indicate the flavor of the tea itself, but they can add to my pleasure nevertheless. The leaves smelled slightly like ash, and they're dark black.

Preparation: 4 tsps, boiling water in cast-iron tetsubin, 3 minutes.

Initial impression: Very smoky, almost like a Lapsang Souchong. Smoky is not my favorite characteristic in tea, ever since my friends discovered I liked Lapsang, and they gave me too much of it. I wonder how that flavor develops in teas that are not actually smoked over pine needles?

With a touch of milk and sugar (I know, I know, shoot me): the smokiness is minimized, allowing me to taste some of the nuance of the tea. It's a though the roof of my mouth (or the part of my tongue that corresponds to that area) notes the smokiness, but the back of my mouth senses these other things... a floral note, very elusive. Very brisk flavor, but with a rather thick, malty mouth-feel. I wish I hadn't noticed that smokiness first, because I think it's masking the other flavors I'm trying to get a hold of.

All in all, Chicago Coffee & Tea Exchange's Keemun was pleasantly surprising, because it hadn't died in the back of my cupboard. A bit smoky for my taste, but still bracing and enjoyable. And because it was inexpensive, doubly enjoyable!


And coming back to the tea review: I had run out of my normal Darjeelings, so drinking the Keemun wasn't my first choice. But after drinking it on and off for a week or so, I think I'm done with it. That smokiness sticks in my throat, and I'm just frankly not that interested in this tea to plow past the smoke to try to find the subtle nuances of whatever is hiding back there.

All in all: an okay tea to try out, but for my taste, not something I'll be coming back to soon.