Wednesday, April 1, 2009

REVIEW: Rembeng Estate Assam, Chicago Coffee & Tea Exchange

I opened up a tin of Rembeng Assam this morning, which was delivered to me from Chicago Coffee & Tea Exchange. They're no longer my first choice for excellent teas (that would be Tea Gschwendner), but they have a variety of second-tier teas that are quite good, if not amazing. This is the company that first started me on understanding the different types of black/oolong/green teas, even if they don't carry the very best of the best. But they're affordable! In the words of Calvin & Hobbes, "Almost as good, and a whole lot cheaper." Their Web site:

Anyway, they sell Assam black tea from the Rembeng Estate, in India. It's not on the Web site, but the owner told me about it, and I ordered. I lifted this description from the Arbor Teas Web site:

A classic black tea produced at the Rembeng estate in India's state of Assam in northeastern India, near the banks of the Brahmaputra River. The Rembeng estate is credited with pioneering organic tea production in Assam. This organic and Fair Trade Certified tea is composed of finely twisted leaves with occasional golden, downy tips. Its full-bodied red-brown infusion does not disappoint, exemplifying the character of a high-quality Assam tea - very flavorful with rich maltiness and a good coppery finish.


Now, granted, this description is for the Arbor Teas brand, which may differ from what I'm drinking from Chicago Coffee & Tea Exchange; but it serves to help me think about what I'm drinking, anyway.

Method of prep: 4 tsps, just boiling water, poured over tea in my Japanese tetsubin iron teapot. 2.5 minutes for steeping.

The tea is very pleasant; very "umami," so to speak. It almost has a meaty, thick quality-- probably what they describe as "maltiness." I'm glad I didn't let it steep much longer, because it would have taken on a rather heavy quality. I'll have to try it at longer steeping to see if I'm right.

The description says it has a coppery flavor. I wonder if that's because the leaves, which are a rich black with some coppery tone in them, suggests it. But I don't taste copper-- more a metallic mouth-feel in the back of my throat. The tea doesn't seem to have much in the way of complex fruitiness or herbal flavor to my taste. The finish is long and rich, sitting on the tongue well after the last sip is complete. The flavor of the finish, though, doesn't change much from what it was like when drinking it. Very consistent flavor from beginning to end, though not terribly nuanced, I guess.

As with almost every tea I get from Chicago Coffee & Tea Exchange, I would say it's a great "everyday" tea, but not something I'd show off to guests. Like drinking a $15 bottle of pinot noir-- pretty good, satisfying, but nothing to write a review of.... D'oh!

UPDATE: The second cup is, predictably, better than the first. The flavors are brighter, more biting. A little bit of sugar to take the edge off the tea helps. I can see what they mean by "copper" flavor now; the metallic flavor seems somewhat refined as the tea develops.

BASIC RULE: Never judge a tea by the first cup; the second cup is always better, because the tea has had a chance to develop and oxidize in the pot a little longer, thus allowing more layers of aroma and flavor to pop.

-----note: a fellow Facebook member took umbrage because I was (slightly) dissing Chicago Coffee & Tea Exchange. I responded thus:

Thanks for your response. Well, regarding prices and so on, I just thought it was interesting, and my honest thoughts on quality. I'm not getting paid by any of these companies, so it's a fairly dispassionate view. Still, providing a second-tier tea is something significant, and nothing to be ashamed of. (For example, people say Tchaikovsky is a second-tier composer, but no one says how much work and effort it takes to rise to that level of excellence. Most of the teas I see are fourth or fifth tier, so this is still a high compliment. And yes, their customer service is very good.)