Saturday, August 15, 2009

Review: The Tea Spot, Green Twisted Spears

Most people in the U.S. think of tea as the dusty stuff inside of a tea bag: dark brown or black, ground powder that is not interesting enough to bear mention. Green Twisted Spears, from The Tea Spot, is entirely different.

THE LEAVES
The leaves are two-inch-long, tightly wound spears, per the name, perfectly formed and worlds away from the tea powder most people are used to. The shape doesn't tell me anything about flavor or aroma, but it says an enormous amount about the attention that has gone into its manufacture. This is a very carefully made tea, and I have some hope that it will be interesting. When the leaves are steeped, they are lightly aromatic with a citrus tone, and the leaves remain fairly tightly furled.


THE TEA
A green from Sri Lanka, this is a novelty to me. I've had Ceylon black teas before, of course, and some of them can be quite nice. Now, green teas traditionally come from China and Japan. But more recently, other tea-growing regions have recognized that by producing high-quality, connoisseur-level teas, they won't be as boxed in as they would were they growing only the commoditized leaves destined for mass-produced tea bags. Happily, I discover, there are Sri Lankan tea farms with an eye toward the high-end market.

THE PREPARATION
The Web site gave me no indication of steeping, so I called The Tea Spot and spoke to Jessica, who explained that a heaping teaspoon or maybe tablespoon of tea should go in water around 180F (82C), for two to three minutes. Further, she explained that the tightly wound tea leaves would allow me to steep it "multiple, multiple times," like an oolong. I chose 180F for 2 minutes for the first steeping. We'll see what happens with subsequent steepings, and I'll see how long I like to drink it.

THE CUP

Steeping 1
Golden and transparent, without a hint of cloudiness. The flavor is clean and lively, with a hint of earthiness to it. Sri Lankan teas have a unique flavor profile, which I can also taste here in this green-- earthy, fruity, even a bit buttery. As greens go, this provides that clean mouthfeel, very light, though it has that earthy note I mentioned earlier, which anchors the tea. It's just a little weak, though; 3 minutes would have been better than 2.

Steeping 2
2 min, 82C. taste is mostly same as before. woody quality stronger. Pleasant aftertaste that tastes, oddly, a bit like ghee, the Indian clarified butter I sometimes use when cooking.

Steeping 3
3 min, 80C. The tea weakens noticeably, and honestly it loses a bit too much interest.


OVERALL IMPRESSIONS
I can see why the manufacturer tells us to steep many times, but I couldn't get enough enjoyment out of it to go past the fourth steeping. I like how the Sri Lankan terroir affected the flavor of the green, because it was like finding a friendly acquaintance in an unusual place: say, a friend from church, greeting me when I'm climbing up a mountain slope in Colorado.

I've never had a green Ceylon before, and I'm pleased with the beautiful handcrafting of the leaf, which was sufficiently interesting to merit an experiment with the tea, all by itself. While this tea isn't as nuanced or bold as the Chinese greens I am more accustomed to, when taken on its own merit, it's pleasant. I'd be interested to see what kind of tea the Ceylon producers will be producing in a hundred years, after much practice and developing cultivars specifically for the green tea style.

In all, this tea is beautiful to look at, and okay to drink. One could say this is like those presentation teas that are great fun to look at, but don't necessarily knock your socks off with aroma or flavor.

>> UPDATE:
Found 08.17.09 on FaceBook:

The TeaSpot

sweet!

If the rest of you are intrigued,http://tiny.cc/spearreview Get automatic 30% off all Green Twisted Spears sizes, today only! http://tiny.cc/spearsale

7 comments:

tvkiii said...

I agree with you on everything you said. My main problem with it was trying to measure it out. It's very hard to tell what a teaspoon is. I thought it a bit weak, but still like it. I am adding more tea per cup now and that seems to help.

Steven Knoerr said...

With this tea, probably it would be best to measure out by mass rather than volume, because can't really fit inside a teaspoon measure.

Yes, the tea is a bit weak. I think it's because the Sri Lankans have for many generations chosen and developed Camellia Sinensis cultivars that work best for the British flavor palate, and are best drunk in Brown Betty pots, served with milk and sugar. So when these cultivars are repurposed for a green or oolong, the results may not always work as well as hoped.

Still, a nice tea, and spectacular to look at.

Maitre_Tea said...

Wow, this looks really fascinating; the leaves really do look spears. Almost as if individual processors took each leaf my hand and wound it tightly

Nerval said...

Hi Steven,this tea actually looks like an imitation of a classic Chinese: Yuzhu (from Yunnan; see example here). This kind of hand-rolling always gives a very pleasant visual effect; while it looks excruciatingly time-consuming tea workers are very skilled and operate really quickly.

While I haven't tried this particular tea I'm not surprised at your comments. Black tea-specialised regions outside China have a really hard time producing decent oolong or green tea (they seem to do well in white tea, as it sees minimal processing).
Although it could well have to do with varietals, there are examples of the same varietal making successful green and black (Keemun and Guapian in Anhui are made from the same plant, and Taiwan makes good black tea with qingxin, a specialised oolong varietal).

In my understanding, it has more to do with processing and a good understanding of the cultivation&picking techniques required for good green tea.
Tea processing - apart from black - is really very complex and requires a lot of skill (drying, rolling, firing etc.). That might just be lacking in regions that only have started making green tea a decade ago.
Best, Nerval

Steven Knoerr said...

Nerval (Wojciech):

I had not heard of Yuhzu before, but I was aware of this type of presentation tea before (and Nigel's entire collection of exotic teas comes to mind: http://www.nbtea.co.uk/acatalog/Exotic_Tea.html)

As demand for high-end, connoisseur-level teas grows, at some point scarcity is going to become a serious issue. At which point, I hope some enterprising Chinese and Taiwanese businessmen will start to export their tea mastery to other growing regions. I've heard Chinese people say that if they owned tea plantations in India, that those Assams would taste much better. I can't deny the truth of it.

But don't you think that the varietals also have something to do with it? Over literally thousands of years, these specific cultivars of the tea plant were chosen (and tens of thousands of others discarded) so that they would taste the best in the local conditions, with local production styles?

Nerval said...

I absolutely agree, cultivars are crucial. Comparing to wine, you can say the grape variety determines the wine character in 90% and tea is similar, although a given tea is heavily determined by the processing method too.

What I meant is that there's always the remaining 10%. I don't think the good people from Sri Lanka should think it's enough if they plant, say, the xiaoye varietal and they'll get a world-class Biluochun tea overnight. Varietals are a good point to start but tasting those green tea from Darjeeling or Nilgiri, my impression is that they're not properly dried and fired to compete with the Chinese.

And dear, doesn't that Nothing But Tea website look like a exhibition of tea oddities! "Baby Jade Column"... Yikes!

Steven Knoerr said...

I am personally attracted to the little plum flowers. Imagine someone tying that one off! The level of artistry that went into producing that is quite amazing. And I do wonder how they taste.