Wednesday, April 22, 2009

REVIEW: Teas Etc., Golden Pearls

REVIEW: Teas Etc., Golden Pearls

In all, a challenging but interesting tea.

I love opening a new package of tea. The scent that greets me tells me something of what the next half hour of my life will be like, and what memories will be evoked by the scents and flavors. Spicy? Sweet? Simple? Complex? Honey and herbs? Grass and sea? Wood and autumn and dry leaves crushed underfoot?

Teas Etc "Golden Pearls" has an aroma that reminds me of thick, hot chocolate, with tones of hot cinnamon, perhaps, or a heavy red berry. The scent is very thick and heady, with such a heavy presence it has an actual mouthfeel.

This is called Golden Pearls, distributed by Teas Etc. I don't know much about the tea itself beyond its appearance, because the company's Web site doesn't tell me much about where it is from (beyond the fact that it was grown in Yunnan). Is it highgrown? Single-estate (judging from the evenness of the handmade, beautiful pearls, I would guess, yes)? Which time of the year was it harvested? I can only guess. I hate guessing.

Terroir is French for, "placeness," the way a region's environment causes a locally produced tea, or cheese, or wine to take on a unique characteristic that can't be imitated elsewhere. Yunnan, China, is the home of this tea. The Yunnan teas do have a certain flavor profile, but there is enormous variety within the region. I am interested to find what this will be. Yunnan is the ancient origination of the tea leaf, and indeed ancient tea trees here still produce specialized pu-erh and loose-leaf teas that are prized and can be very valuable.

2 heaping teaspoons of the leaves, 2 cups just-under-boiling water (lobster eyes, anyone?), in Great-Grandma's porcelain Japanese teapot. Steeped just over three minutes (which is on the scant side of the company's recommended 3 to 5 minutes).

These particular leaves are rolled into golden-and-black balls the size of largish pearls, with the scent I described at the opening of this review. After steeping, the spent leaves took on the appearance of thick needles about a half-inch to an inch long, with a color somewhere between black and milk chocolate. (And why the chocolate metaphors creeping into this review? Glad you asked.) The leaves were perfectly formed, with no damage I could see at all. What care was taken in their manufacture!

The scent was interesting. It smells a bit like bitter, dark chocolate, but with a note of hot spiciness that hits the back of the throat. This is very different from the floral complexity of the Darjeelings I've been indulging in lately.

The liquor is an opaque black. Drunk hot, it is quite heavy, really, even though it was only steeped for 3 minutes. There is quite a bitter edge, which I am not fond of. I know, bitterness is often an integral part of the tea-drinking experiences, as it is one of the five flavors (bitter, sour, salt, sweet, and umami), and using milk and sugar to blunt it seems really a way of cheating nature.

Very strong chocolate overtones, and a sharp spiciness at the back of the mouth. A very serious cup of tea that reminds one of drinking a cup of strong, black coffee. The Yunnan characteristic makes me think a bit of the pu-erhs I drank recently-- that's the terroir coming out-- a bit metallic, even a bit like the smell of the old oil in an automobile repair shop. Actually, the flavor is both very bold and rather elusive-- one sip reminds me of one flavor, but the next sip it's changed, and that first impression is lost forever.

THE SECOND CUP (of the first steeping)
Still quite bitter, which is the predominant characteristic that I notice upon first sipping. The chocolate note is transforming into more like a coffee flavor-- like those coffee-flavored candies my Grandma had in her house, but I couldn't really enjoy. As the tea cools, the bitterness gives way to the very thick coffee-ness. I'm trying not to cheat, but I would ordinarily be tempted drink this with a touch of sugar to cut that bitterness. (In fact, my wife did cheat, and I tasted her cup. Much better. She even went so far as to blunt it with milk and sugar, English style, and that went a long way to mute that harshness.)

I have steeped this a second time for a fairly short time-- 30 seconds or so. With second steepings, I've heard advice saying to only steep for maybe 15 or 30 seconds; and others who say to double the steeping time. This will take further study, but at the moment...
ME: How do you like it (a sip of my unsweetened second steeping)?
WIFE: It's good. It's not my favorite.
ME: How did you like your first cup, though?
WIFE: It's good, with the milk and sugar.
And... there you have it. The second steeping is much smoother than the first. The bitterness is almost entirely absent, leaving behind a cleaner, brighter, less heavy brew. There's a greenness in the flavor now, and a grassiness that was completely absent before. Also, that heavy chocolate/coffee flavor is absent when drunk hot. Honestly, I like the second steeping much better than the first, because I am not fond of heavy or bitter teas that require milk and sugar to be drunk.

When allowed to cool a bit in the cup, the second steeping of this tea allows the chocolate flavor to return to the palate, but this time without the bitterness I experienced at first. This is a pleasant surprise I was not expecting. As always, the Chinese thought of everything first-- and their practice of thinking of teas as Hot, then Warm, then Cool is useful when assessing the different stages a tea goes through in its evolution in the cup.

In future, I would consider rinsing the tea for 30 seconds or so to help remove some of that heaviness and bitterness, which made the tea a bit challenging at first... or maybe I should just break down and drink it with milk and sugar, English-style. Obvious care was taken in the creation of this tea-- the leaves were perfectly formed and undamaged in transit halfway across the world-- so I hesitate to go to such extremes. I'm glad the chocolate tone finally made its appearance on the second steeping, and without the bitterness. In all, a challenging but interesting tea.