Monday, July 13, 2009

Review: Earthbound Tea, Green Wink

Ah, the lazy days of Summer, when diligent little self-employed closed-captioner elves find themselves up to their eyeballs in work. Who knew I would ever feel too busy to write about tea? I have half a dozen partially written commentaries about my favorite brown leaf juice. Here is one of them!


Green Wink is variously called Zhen Mei, or Chunmee, in Chinese, which translates as, "Precious Eyebrows." This is because the dry leaves are small, irregularly shaped balls that do appear a bit like eyebrows, or winking eyes. Earthbound Tea's product name is a great translation, and conveys much more in English than "Precious Eyebrows" ever would. Or "Glorious Comma."

Zhen Mei was originally produced in Jiangxi, China, but is now also created in factories in Fujian, Anhui, Zhejiang, and others. This one happens to be created in Yunnan. This is quite often the case with these boutique teas. There is simply not enough room in the ancestral homes of these teas, so other regions will borrow the production style and recreate it somewhere else. Often with good results, as the teas change subtly to accommodate a new terroir.

I like how the Zentara Tea company describes the flavor and production of this tea:

Chunmee green tea has a unique flavor profile. Absent what is often called a "chestnut note" common in many other Chinese green teas, Chunmee is a smooth tasting green tea with a subtle lingering sweet/sour aftertaste which some tea drinkers compare to a plum flavor. Chunmee is a well-balanced tea that holds up well to many different foods when served with morning or evening meals.

To create the unique shape of the tea leaves for a Chunmee tea, the hand-plucked tea leaves are processed by withering and then steaming to stop the oxidation process and maintain a green leaf. The final step is pan-firing, and during this process the leaves are hand-rolled using controlled movements while monitoring the temperature and firing time. The creating of the eyebrow shape has been perfected for centuries, going back to the Ming Dynasty, and this artisan prepared tea is still one of the most popular green teas in China.

The Web site did not give very precise instructions on how to infuse this leaf, so I guessed, given the general parameters of green tea: 70C, 1 heaping tsp per cup, 3 minutes, antique Japanese porcelain pot. Then I tried a new pot at 72C, 2 teaspoons percup, 3 minutes.

Dark, dusty green balls, shaped like little winking eyes. When they are steeped, they open into full, lush, dark leaves, with a bit of stem here and there, only faintly aromatic. When they have been steeped, they open out into beautiful, dark-green, full leaves. It's a bit of a game with many high-end tea producers: Can they create an unusual dry shape that, when wet, will spring back exactly into the shape the leaves had before processing? Also, please recall that when tea leaves are balled up like this, the the surface area is reduced, so the amount of leaf that can react with the oxygen and moisture in the atmosphere is reduced, thus increasing the quality and shelf-life of the tea.

Steeped with 1 tsp/cup at 70C for 3 minutes, the liquor, or soup, of this tea is very pale, with the appearance of a white tea. It's perfectly transparent with a slightly golden hue. This is a very restrained, clean cup of tea without a hint of bitterness. Pleasant, and Suzanne declared it, "Very good." Honestly, I had a bit of trouble really picking out what this tea tastes like.

The tea is, to my taste, a bit too mild with the steeping parameters I initially chose. So I decided to infuse a new pot, but this time with 2 tsp/cup at maybe 72C for 3 min, to give the infusion more strength and to help me discern the taste more distinctly.

This time, the tea is a richer, but still pale and transparent, gold. The green taste is much more pronounced, with a strongly vegetal quality. The acidity of the cup is more pronounced as well, with a pleasant burn on the way down. It has that umami quality, which I very much enjoy in a green tea, with a taste like the seashore, and high notes of salt, and a floral aroma that reminds me of daisies on a hot day.

When I ask my friends to compare this tea with others I've had recently, they struggle because the two- or three-syllable Chinese names just blend in with one another and are forgotten. When we use English translations, which can often go in several directions, we may not know what we're talking about. Happily, Earthbound Tea gives a catchy English translation along with its Chinese equivalent.