Beyond the Leaf
As the Tea and Cheese Pairing Class drifts into history, the flavors are still lingering in our minds. On the afternoon of October 26th, Steven Levine, a local cheese Guru, showed up at the Eden Prairie TeaSource with eight exceptional specialty cheeses. Class attendees took their seats as regular customers looked on with curious expressions tinged with jealousy.
The fragrance of cheese was threatening to overwhelm the aroma of tea, so I got the first tea steeping and the class commenced. The pairings ranged in flavor, intensity, and complexity. Some were smooth, decadent, and buttery like the Delice de Bourgogne Brie with Milk Oolong, Traditional. Others sharp and brisk like our ‘Everyman Pairing’: the Collier’s Powerful Cheddar with the classic breakfast blend style tea, Ceylon Lumbini FBOP.
The favorite tea of the evening was the new Fujian black tea, Jin Jun Mei, for its rich depth and unique bold character. This is not an inexpensive tea, but it would make a fabulous holiday gift. The cheese that stole the show, and my personal favorite, was the beautiful Humbolt Fog. This cheese literally tasted like fog. It was so complex that every tea we paired it with pulled another layer of flavor out of the cheese.
Our final pairing was St. Pete’s Select Blue Cheese with the exquisite 1999 Sheng Puer, both aged and riddled with active microbes. This Puer comes as compressed cake of tea, a tea-making method new to the West, but with deep roots in China. This tea reminds me of something Aragorn would have carried across Middle Earth and steeped up for the Hobbit’s breakfast on the road to Mordor!
All of the incredible cheeses for this workshop were purchased from Surdyk’s Liquor and Cheese Shop - my favorite place in the Twin Cities to buy cheese (and wine). Their variety and quality is fantastic.
Everyone went home full of calcium and caffeine, making it a tea and cheese success story. I speak for both Steven and myself when I say the class was exceptionally fun, filling, and informative. We hope we can teach it again for the spring class cycle.
Chevre Goat Cheese 88th Night Shincha Collier’s Powerful Cheddar Ceylon Lumbini FBOP Delice de Bourgogne Brie Milk Oolong, Traditional Bent River Camembert 1995 Aged Pouchong Spanish Garrotxa Jin Jun Mei Humbolt Fog Tung Ting Light Roast Five year Gouda Assam, Harmutty Estate St. Pete’s Select Blue 1999 Sheng Puer
Black tea is black tea (as opposed to purple tea) because of oxidation. If you cut an apple (or banana or zucchini etc.) in half and let it sit, within a few minutes the exposed flesh start to turn brown. That’s oxidation.
Turning brown: which is perfectly safe, it’s just oxidation
And that is what happens to make black tea. They roll, crush, tear, cut, and/or curl the tea leaves; this is the equivalent of cutting the apple. Thus they expose the interior of the plant, disrupting the cell membranes to air.A rolling machine in Sri Lanka, crushing the leaves, making them juicy—the precursor to oxidation.
The tea leaves get all juicy, just like an apple gets juicy if you cut it. If they are making black tea, they spread the juicy leaves out on a long flat surface, like a trough, table, or even the floor (using a tarp), and let the leaves turn brown. That's oxidation. If they leave the leaves out long enough, they oxidize fully and become black tea. It is relatively easy to stop or prevent oxidation. Apply gentle heat to the leaves, which kills the enzymes in the leaf and prevents oxidation from occurring, or stops the oxidation at that point. No browning.
Why do tea folks bother with oxidation? Without it, all you would have is white or green teas. I love white and green teas, but if someone took my Grand Keemun away I would go crazy. The date and origin of deliberate oxidation as a process for making black tea is not certain. Fujian has been making what would now be considered black tea since the late Ming dynasty, but large scale production did not take place in China until the 19th century. It is important to understand that for all intent and purposes black tea is NOT drunk in China—at all. They make a remarkable amount and variety of black teas in China, but they don’t drink them. It’s not completely crazy to speculate that oxidation was “invented” by mistake.
What happens during oxidation? The plant gives off H2O (water evaporating) and absorbs extra oxygen from the atmosphere which, with the enzymes in the leaf, triggers a whole bunch of chemical reactions, causing the leaf to turn black/brown, the flavor and aroma to change, etc. etc.
Tea Geek facts about tea oxidation:
- If you really want to be annoyingly literal about it, ALL tea goes through some degree of oxidation, albeit, sometimes a VERY minor degree of oxidation. Because oxidation begins the moment the leaf is plucked from the tea plant.
- -White and green tea both go through probably less than 5% oxidation- basically just what happens during transport and handling-- in fact they are trying to prevent and arrest oxidation. Oolongs can be oxidized through a large range, anywhere from 12- 90%.
- Black teas typically go through close to 95-100% oxidation
- Teas going through oxidation smell AMAZING: intoxicating, addictive, intense, sweet, fruity, alive….
- When black teas are going through oxidation, the leaves are spread out on a surface, maybe a table--that's called the "dhool" table.
- Oxidation is fast, for whole leaf teas it can be up to four hours or so. For a small particled tea (CTC), as little as 90 minutes.
A dhool table (or trough) in Ceylon, the tea would be spread out across these areas.
And yes, there is a purple tea. In fact, there are two kinds of purple tea, both are real tea from the camellia sinensis plant- one from Africa and one from China. Watch this blog for more info.
To confess, when I was growing up, all "tea" was "black tea" to me. Boring. And as far as I knew, it grew in tea bags that hung from Lipton trees. When green tea had its renaissance in the 90’s as some form of exotic “cure-all”, I began to take interest (and enjoy it thoroughly). But when I learned black and green tea come from the same mysterious source (a plant otherwise known as camellia sinensis), I realized I had been fooled.The defining feature of black tea, allowing the leaves to fully oxidize, is not as simple as it sounds. There are innumerable factors that go into the process, beginning with geographic location. Local terroir and the particular tea cultivar planted in that region will have a huge impact on the outcome of that tea before the leaves have even been plucked.Local traditions and history may be the biggest factor. China, where black tea originated, has its own unique regional styles. But if the tea growing region was initiated by the former British Empire (India, Sri Lanka, Africa), this will have its own particular impact on the methods used. In Taiwan, their modern black teas are often being produced by the same farmers who have been making oolong tea for decades.Even when the regions are inside the same political border, the outcomes can be wildly different. The Darjeeling and Assam regions of India are not geographically far apart, but produce teas that are nothing alike. Part of this is because Darjeeling uses the small-leaf Chinese tea plant, camellia sinensis-sinensis, smuggled out of China by the British spy Robert Fortune. This sub-species prefers high elevations and cooler temperatures. Assam uses their own indigenous plant, camellia sinensis-assamica, whose large leafs produce thick, lush teas and prefer the tropical climate of the Assam valley.
My original (and ignorant) assumption was that black tea was somehow boring and homogenous. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The variety is staggering. A well made first flush Darjeeling tea from India and a first grade Keemun from China are so different that it’s hard to recognize both of them as black teas. But that is why it is so fascinating.
I love it when an experience totally takes me by surprise; especially over the course of a wonderfully fun night.TeaSource manager Jess Hanley and I recently spent an evening planning, tasting, and schmoozing with one of the Twin Cities best known cheese geeks, Steven Levine. This was in anticipation of an upcoming workshop, Tea & Cheese: A Perfect (and Unexpected) Pairing, at our Eden Prairie store on Saturday, October 26th. We figured we better get together and play with some cheeses and tea for a while so we had an idea of what we would do on Saturday. Steven brought along eight different cheeses that we were going to try match with teas then narrow them down to five or six cheeses for the workshop. We started working our way through the cheeses, basically taking a lightest to heaviest approach. We went in thinking we would just try to pair cheeses and appropriate teas: choosing teas that complimented, contrasted, or provided a base or background note for the cheese. It didn't work out that way. It started with the first cheese: a very fresh, lovely, mild, local, goat cheese. It quickly became apparent that it wasn’t just a question of whether this tea tastes good with that cheese. The teas were actually changing the taste profiles and flavor notes of the individual cheeses. And the reverse was happening. We nibble a cheese, take a swallow, taste the cheese a 2nd time and all of a sudden there were all these notes from the cheese that weren't there on the first nibble. It was NOT subtle changes; it was like a whole different range of notes.It would happen in the other direction too; try the tea first, then the cheese, then the tea again. And the tea would literally taste phenomenally different than the first sip: sometimes it would become muted, sometimes, individual notes would shine at the expense of others, and sometimes there would just be tastes that weren't there the first time. This happened with all eight cheeses (and teas), to varying degrees-sometimes dramatically so. All three of us were knocked over by this phenomenon. There may be gastronomes (old speak for foodies) out there to whom this is a common experience. But I wasn’t ready for it. Again I stress, it wasn't simply a case of two things tasting good together. It was the combination of these two foods within your mouth, changing the way the palate experiences the flavors available to it. It was wild. My favorite pairing was a five-year-old Gouda with a crumbly almost cheddar-like texture, matched with our Jin Jun Mei (an incredibly rich, sweet, velvety, black tea from Fujian). The taste sensation even changed depending on which direction we went: tea first then cheese, then tea again. Or vice versa, letting the cheese lead. We ended up not being able to eliminate any of the eight cheeses, they were all so good. So, on Saturday, October 26 we will be cupping up eight world-class cheeses with eight world-class teas--- and turning people’s palates upside down. There are still a few slots left open, but I expect the class to fill up fast. If you're not in the Twin Cities try this at home: seriously it’s amazing. After the class I will post the actual pairings we worked up. You'll experience tastes you've never tasted before, and that's a pretty rare experience. -Bill
TeaSource has just won first place at the Taster’s Choice Awards at the World Tea East Exposition in the Black Tea category for our Golden Dragon tea. World Tea East is a gathering of tea professionals from around the world and part of the World Tea Expo, the largest tea exposition/convention in the world.All teas that placed in the North American Tea Competition are lined up for dozens of tea professionals to evaluate and then vote for the best tea. It’s actually pretty cool. The people evaluating are tea growers, tea brokers, tea-tasters, tea scientists, tea merchants, and tea journalists, from India, China, Taiwan, Japan, Malaysia, Europe, and more. Some of these folks are the people I admire and respect most in this crazy industry I’m in. And Golden Dragon knocked their socks off! The leaves of this tea are golden, thick, luscious, and downy with a rich aroma. The steeped liquor is deep, complex, very sweet, with tremendous mouth-feel. This is an incredibly high-grade tea, almost never seen outside China. After winning, of course, I had to deal with all the glam and glitter of being a tea champion; the paparazzi, the all night parties with all the adoring tea groupies and over-the-top debauched behavior. It’s a wild life we tea people live. Thanks to all the people who voted for us. -Bill
Why Taiwan tea? If you had to ask the question, you haven’t tried them. Taiwan has tens of thousands of small tea growers, many of them family operations, and the industry is almost synonymous with oolong.Michael rolling tea incorrectly
Making Taiwanese oolongs is a long process and requires a lot of experience to get it right. After witnessing how oolong is made on a trip to Taiwan in 2011, I realized I am a very lazy and impatient person. I also realized I’m really bad at tea producing skills such as “rolling” and “withering” (which involves staring at the leaves for about 14 hours – it takes forever). Though few of my instructors spoke English, they knew how to yell “No” just like my father, and show me again how to do it right. To know when the leaves are done withering, they simply pick them up and smell them – and I couldn’t tell the difference at 6 hours, 10 hours, or 14 hours – which is when they said it was ready.Michael withering tea incorrectly
But I did learn a couple things while I was there. The first thing I learned was an immense respect for the wisdom and discipline to master what is essentially an art form. I also learned that when I was not ruining their tea leaves, the Taiwanese are otherwise very nice and welcoming people. I was amazed at their patience with my lack of Chinese speaking skills and their inclusiveness of total strangers. I also learned a little bit about the basic styles of Taiwanese teas, and what to look for.
Here are a couple of my notes:
Pouchong or Bao Zhong (translation: scented variety) – loosely defined as a lightly oxidized oolong with long, twisted, emerald green leaves, typically from Wenshan in northern Taiwan. The Chin Shin cultivar is commonly used to highlight the very fragrant nature of this tea. Look for a spectrum of sweet, strong-floral tones on top and bright, but subtle vegetal flavors underneath. The complexities of pouchongs will fade quickly once exposed to air so buy vacuum sealed if possible and store airtight.
Tung Ting or Dong Ding (translation: frozen peaks) – Though Mount Tung Ting is covered with tea plants, modern usage of “Tung Ting” often refers to a style of tea grown in Nantou county by which the leaves are rolled and compressed into “semi-ball” or “bead” style rather than the long twisted leaves of pouchong. These teas are often distinguished by what mountain they were grown on, which cultivar was used, and what degree of baking they went through (note that not all teas of this style will be referred to as Tung Ting – yes, it’s confusing to me too).
Tung Ting styles that are lightly oxidized are often referred to as “Jade Oolongs” for the bright green color. Other times the tea may be “baked” at the end of the process to deepen the character. The flavor profiles of these teas will vary widely depending on any of the above mentioned factors, ranging from soft and floral to deep and toasty.
Oriental Beauty, also know as Bai Hao Oolong or Silvertip Oolong, is one of Taiwan’s most famous (and expensive) teas. The tea is made only in mid-summer when the “Green Leaf Hopper” arrives to feed on the new growth tea leaves, which are then immediately harvested. This “feeding” causes a chemical reaction in the plant meant to drive the insect away, but it is also responsible for the sweet honey notes of a great Oriental Beauty.
When buying an Oriental Beauty I look for teas with sparkling, floral, apricot notes on top; and honey-woodsy-spicy notes in the bass. The leaves should have a stunning contrast of bright silver tips over twisted bronze leaves. It is called Oriental Beauty for good reason.
I could go on forever (I already have). This only scratches the surface. All I’ve learned so far is that I have a lot to learn, and besides the tea itself, that’s the best part.