February 11, 2009

The Red River Blog #2

Low Temperature Brewing of Black Teas – Part 1

One afternoon at the store I was brewing an Assam.  A customer came in and I naturally put aside the tea and assisted the customer.  I returned to the Assam about 40 minutes later.  Needless to say the tea was ruined, bitter beyond salvaging.
So the next time I was inclined to an afternoon black tea I decided to brew it at a lower temperature, the temperature we use for brewing green teas, about 175 degrees.  Nothing interrupted the brewing this time, so after about three minutes I poured out the tea.  To my surprise I found the tea to be sweeter and more flavorful than I had previously tasted.
This started a series of experiments in brewing black teas.  The standard wisdom regarding black teas is that they are more resilient than green or oolong teas, meaning that one can use a full boil to brew black teas, whereas greens and oolongs require a lower temperature.  The idea is that if one uses a full boil on green teas they will turn bitter; which is certainly true.  The same applies to most oolongs.  While it is true that black teas can take a full boil without ruining them, what I have discovered is that a richer, more complex, flavor is produced when one brews black teas at a lower temperature.
After my first sip of black tea brewed at a low temperature I began to systematically experiment with black teas.  I discovered that black tea blends in particular benefit from low temperature brewing.  This applies to such favorites as English Breakfast, Irish Breakfast, and the numerous blends available today.  What I discovered is that low temperature brewing allows me to taste the individual ingredients.  For example, if the blend includes Keemun and Darjeeling, with low temperature brewing I can taste these two teas as distinct flavors.  In high temperature brewing, usually at a full boil, the individual teas become indistinguishable.
If one thinks of tea as a vegetable, this makes sense.  If one is cooking a soup and one boils the vegetables at a full boil for a while, the individual components lose their distinctiveness.  Similarly, with a black tea blend brewed at a high temperature, the individual ingredients lose their distinctiveness.
In contrast, when I brewed black tea blends at a low temperature the individual flavors of the varieties used were clearly distinguishable.  I found this to yield a complex, rich, and savory tea.  The complexity in particular appeals to me because it makes each sip a kind of adventure in the realm of taste.

February 10, 2009

The Red River Blog #1


I first began appreciating tea when I was studying Buddhism in Korea and Japan.  In both of these countries green tea is what is served and appreciated.  In Korea there is also a fondness for roasted barley tea.  When I was back in the U.S. and heading a Temple in New York City I studied Urasenke Tea Ceremony, briefly, and learned about the wonders of matcha and the beauty of the ceremony itself.  I had also studied the Korean Tea Ceremony, which doesn’t use powdered tea, while in Korea.
To my mind refined tea, really good tea, was green tea.  I think part of the reason I felt that way was that, like most Americans, my experience with black tea was based exclusively on bag tea; such well-known brands as Lipton, Rose, Stash, and Constant Comment were what I knew about black tea.  Bag tea is, with very few exceptions, the leavings, tea dust, and low grade tea.  It can be, and often is, pleasant enough and in summer makes a good iced tea to take the edge off hot days and nights.  But, it must be said, bag tea lacks any kind of subtlety or complexity and doesn’t offer the full range of flavor that full leaf tea does. 
It wasn’t until I started working at Many Rivers, six years ago now, that I became exposed to full leaf black tea on a regular basis.  I think it was in the second year of operation that I encountered a really fine Second Flush Darjeeling.  What a treat!  The aroma, the complexity of the taste, the way the cleanliness of the flavor lingered for a long time after drinking the warm cup, all of this was a kind of revelation to me.  I also want to add the attractive color of black tea; a rich, warm, red, it seemed to me a kind of “royal” color which I found very attractive.
With this auspicious introduction I became a black tea convert.  Not over night, but  gradually green tea faded from my menu.  Not entirely; I still enjoy a fine cup of Dragon Well or a robust hit of Gun Powder, and every now and then the ever dependable Genmaicha is just what I need.  On the whole, though, I’ve become a black tea drinker.  I’d say at least 80% of my tea drinking is now black tea.
So this blog will be dedicated to black tea in its many varieties, methods of brewing, serving, and enjoying this delightful type of tea.
A closing word on the name of the blog:  Red River refers to the fact that the Chinese, who invented black tea, refer to this kind of Tea as “Red Tea” (hence an excellent Chinese Black Tea is called “Imperial Red”).  This is because when the tea is brewed and served in a white cup this kind of tea has that ruby red warm glow that is so distinctive.  I like that association so I decided to use it for the name of this blog – Red River Blog.