I am a bad, bad blogger

Slinking back in shame, I am. Many apologies for the lack of content; my life has been more than a little upset by personal events of late (which I will not be going into). Add to that the ‘oh no, now I’m late” embarrassment, and you have the recipe for an involuntary hiatus. However, this is just to inform you I am back, in the process of moving, but back, and I have a pretty nice selection of new teas to try out! I will try to have a new review posted by the end of this week, and will attempt a weekly review schedule so I don’t run out of new teas while I still have gargantuan amounts of already-reviewed leaf to drink up.

Many thanks for reading!

Harney & Sons Formosa Oolong

To properly describe oolong tea requires a brief lesson in the growth and processing of teas. All true teas are grown from the camellia sinesnsis plant, of which two main varieties are used in tea manufacture: camellia sinensis var. sinensis, Chinese tea (sinensis itself is Latin for ‘from china’), and camellia sinensis var. assamica, Assam tea, so named for the region in India in which it is grown. From either of these teas, any of the four main categories of tea may be made, depending on processing: white, green, oolong, and black. This fact is easy to overlook, given the vast distinction in flavor, color, and character that tea brewed from each style exhibits, and indeed it was not until 1841 and Robert Fortune’s espionage mission (a topic I will cover in more detail at another time) that the western world learned that black and green teas came from the same plant. The difference is entirely due to processing, and this processing is also responsible for the differences between individual teas within a style.

In its most general form, tea processing proceeds as follows: the leaf is plucked from the plant, then withered or wilted to remove moisture. The leaves are then ‘disrupted’ by physical processes to release enzymes inside the leaves which begin to act on the tea; the precise nature and extent of this disruption depend on the style desired, and range from very gentle to extremely violent. After this, the most important phase (at least, to the distinction of the style) begins: oxidation. The leaves are allowed to sit in a climate-controlled room, and the action of the released enzymes works on the leaves to darken them. In the process, many compounds are produced and broken down,  dramatically changing every aspect of the tea that will later be made from the leaf. White teas are not permitted to oxidize at all, and green teas only very lightly so, retaining a light color and a typically more delicate flavor. Black teas are allowed to fully oxidize, promoting robust flavors, dark color, and a heavier body. Oolong teas are in the middle, ranging from 5% to as much as 80% oxidation, and this wide variation makes oolong teas a particularly diverse category. After the desired oxidation has been reached, the leaves are heated to stop oxidation (called fixation or kill-green), then shaped, dried, and if desired, aged or fermented before sale.

As I mentioned, the wide range of oxidation within the catagory of oolong tea gives great variety to its brews, with many unique flavors and, particularly, aromas—oolong teas are often prized for their scent. This tea, from Harney & Sons, is named Formosa, which is an archaic term for Taiwan. Thus, a Formosa Oolong tea can technically be any oolong tea grown in that nation, and this particular tea is not otherwise identified or labeled, so there is little information I can add to its origin. More so than any other tea variety, I have found a tremendous range of variables for brewing oolong tea: up to two teaspoons of leaf per cup, down to one; times range from seconds to as long as nine minutes spent brewing, and temperature from 190 degrees Fahrenheit all the way to a full boil. This, more than anything, has convinced me that the ‘proper’ way to brew a tea boils down (if you’ll pardon the expresson) to one’s own preference for the specific tea in question. Being, however, a neophyte in the preparation of this sort of tea, I followed the instructions on Harney & Sons’ website: temperature just below boiling, time 4-5 minutes, ratio at about the standard 1 teaspoon/cup of water (or 2 g/200 mL, for you metric folks!).

After being poured, the tea has a medium-dark honey tone, perhaps a few shades darker than the orange blossom honey my family favors. It has a lovely aroma, with faint floral undertones supporting a very rich, almost caramel scent—definitely an appealing prelude. The first sip is light and smooth, a delicate flavor with a touch of peach and very little briskness. It’s a refreshing sort of tea, and it’s amazingly easy to drink—I have had as many as five cups in a single sitting without thinking. There is little change in taste after finishing—the aftertaste is much the same as the tea itself, and again has only a hint of dryness on the palate. Additional infusions change both aroma and flavor, letting the more subtle floral notes through as the heavier caramel recedes…it’s good for at least four brews, although adding 30 seconds to a minute for each additional infusion helps if you prefer to keep the brew roughly equal in strength.

While this is not a tea that I have history with, it’s serving well for the present—it’s been the most popular tea I’ve tried among my family, as its delicate flavor and low caffeine content make it easy to drink regardless of the time of day. I’ve no doubt it will serve well as a drink of choice for our evening gatherings for some time.

To our families, and all they mean to us.

Mary Herbert’s Mint Julep

It’s Derby Day, and that means one thing: mint juleps! There’s also this thing about horses and hats and racing, but I’m a little fuzzy on all that, so I’m going to focus on the important part. The mint julep is a beverage that combines grains (for bourbon) and leaves (from mint) in its production, making it especially suited as a topic for consideration here. A delectable mixed drink of bourbon, sugar, mint, and water, served very cold (usually over crushed ice), the mint julep is popular in the southeast of the USA and is an emblematic drink of the Kentucky Derby.

As the other ingredients are more or less self-explanatory, I will spent some time on bourbon first. Bourbon is a cask-aged grain spirit, associated heavily with Bourbon Country, Kentucky, and is a somewhat-controlled label; in the USA and Canada, any whiskey labeled as ‘bourbon’ must be distilled and aged in the States, though many other nations do not adhere to this protected-origin labeling. To qualify as a bourbon in the USA, a spirit must adhere to these standards, per the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits:

  • Must be initially brewed from a grain mixture containing at least 51% corn
  • Must be aged in new, charred oak barrels
  • Must be distilled to no more than 160 proof, or 80% ethanol by volume
  • Must enter the barrels for again at no more than 125 proof, or 62.5% ethanol by volume
  • Must be bottled at no less than 80 proof, or 40% ethanol by volume

Additionally, if the bourbon has been aged at least two years and has no added color, flavor, or additional spirits may be called ‘straight bourbon’. These regulations create a corn-based whiskey (as opposed to the barley-based spirits of Ireland and Scotland) that can be spicy or softer, depending on the other grains from which it is initially brewed. The brewing process is relatively straightforward (as it is for most spirits) and I will cover it more fully in another review; it is the aging that is most important to the flavor of the finished bourbon (or indeed, any sort of cask-aged drink).  The charred barrel interiors contain caramelized tree sugars, which contribute their distinct taste to the finished spirit, as well as carbon, which smooths out some of the harshness of distilled ethanol.  Temperature changes are the major driving force behind the extraction of these compounds; warehouses are usually unregulated in temperature, and the cycles of heat and cold over years of maturing causes pressure in the casks to fluctuates, forcing liquid into and then drawing it out of the cask’s wood. This leaches much more from the barrels than simple diffusion would provide, and a significant amount of time is spent in the warehouse, testing and moving barrels in order to evenly age the bourbon inside. Much like teas, oxidation and evaporation play important parts as well, converting harsh compounds into milder ones and allowing some of the volatiles to escape. While typically longer aging results in a darker, stronger-flavored bourbon, it is not always an indicator of quality and it is quite possible to over-age and thus introduce undesirable woody flavors.

The mint julep proper, meanwhile, is (as in so many famous concoctions) of a vague origin, but it seems most likely to have been first created in the southeastern US during the 1700s, with the first known recipe in print appearing in London, of all places, during 1803.  The term ‘julep’ originally meant a sweet drink, and is etymologically derived from the Persian golab, meaning rose water, though I’ve never heard it in any context but the mint julep during my own reading. The exact method of preparation varies, but in all cases mint leaves are bruised in some manner (which releases volatile oils and other delightful flavors), then combined with the bourbon, water, and sugar. In some cases the sugar is added as a cube and mixed, while in others it is cooked into a simple syrup to make it easier to combine. This particular mint julep is made by muddling spearmint leaves with Maker’s Mark bourbon, allowing them to infuse for several hours, then mixing with simple syrup and chilling before serving on ice. Traditionally, a copper-cored silver julep glass is used, but here we’ve made do with glass and a freezer….good enough, right?

You can see the color in the image above, and it’s essentially unchanged from the base whiskey coloration. Due to the cold, it’s remarkably light-scented for a whiskey-based drink, mostly redolent of mint—the whiskey itself takes a definite back seat, but the first sip quickly rectifies this. It’s slightly sweet, but from the first to the last the bourbon is the star of the show, sharp and alcoholic on the tongue at first, with a warm glow that starts at the throat and moves upward as the flavor develops. The mint and sugar recede and the soft, rich flavors of grain take precedence, with a bit of caramel and vanilla in the background as well. There’s no sugary aftertaste, which is so often a problem with sweetened drinks, just the aroma of mint, the remnants of a pretty fine bourbon, and a faint alcoholic burn to remind you that yes, it is still about 80 proof! It’s a smooth, refreshing drink, and I can testify that it’s entirely too easy to exceed your tolerance…but for me at least, horse racing has always been  more interesting when I’m tipsy. <.<

As the title suggests, this is not just any mint julep we’ve put together, but is instead the wonderful contribution of a dear friend: Mary Herbert, author of the Dark Horse series and a number of Dragonlance novels and short stories. Our families have known each other for nearly 25 years now; her son is my best and most loyal friend, and she and my mother share a similar bond. Derby Day is one of the few rituals that all parties involved can still scrounge up the time for, but it’s always a joy when we can get together.  These juleps, made with mint from her garden, are a traditional treat, and both the scent of mint and the sight of a Maker’s Mark bottle remind me of good company, good friends, and the horrible-yet-funny deluge of awful puns that so often happens when she and my mother start getting buzzed. Especially during unbalanced times, it’s beyond comforting to have the company of someone you know cares.Besides being excellent company, she’s a fantastic writer, and if you’re any fan of fantasy at all I highly recommend looking up her books!

Cheers, all of you…and may I’ll Have Another find his way to victory in the Preakness and Belmont!

Harney & Sons Genmaicha

Genmaicha iTea, pot, and cups a Japanese tea style which combines brown rice with green tea during the roasting process to add a toasty, nutty aroma and flavor to the brewed tea. The style originated sometime in the 1920s in Kyoto, and is traditionally made with late-harvest tea (called bancha) which is typically of poorer quality and flavor than teas harvested earlier. This, combined with the toasted rice acting as filler, assured for many years that genmaicha was a drink of the  lower classes—those who could afford better certainly would seek it out. However, in more recent years, genmaicha has undergone a shift in image, and it is now a very popular style among a diverse spectrum of drinkers. Like other green teas, it’s a good source of antioxidants, and this image of health combined with its more accessible flavor has gained genmaicha a wide audience among those who have not developed a taste for straight green tea. Seasoned fans of green tea also enjoy the style for its unique and refreshing flavor, and genmaicha using first-harvest sencha leaves or powdered matcha is now available. What I am sampling today, however, is Harney & Sons’ offering, which is produced, as the original, with the larger bancha leaves.

As a green tea, genmaicha should be brewed with hot but not boiling water, often cited between 160 and 180 degrees Fahrenheit, and brewed for a relatively short time, with some sources saying as little as 60 seconds. A more average duration is between two and three minutes, depending on who you talk to. Harney & Sons recommends both temperature and time to be on the lower end of the scale, but I personally prefer my green teas a little stronger, so I usually brew for two-three minutes and at around 170 degrees. The pot I am about to drink has been brewed in the manner, with a rounded teaspoon of tea for the single cup it holds. As traditional, I’ll be making several cups from the pot, each with their own distinct properties.  That’s enough background, I think—on to tasting!

The first cup pours a very pale green, and has a delicate tea aroma behind a very strong scent of toasted rice. It’s a nice smell, comforting, but probably a little unusual to those unused to genmaicha. The first sip continues the theme, though the flavor is more balanced than the aroma, with a significantly increased proportion of tea to rice. It’s a mild flavor, as green teas go—only a few hints of the sometimes potent vegetable-esque qualities that certain blends posses. It is has a light feel to it as well, with very little astringency and a delicate body. After the cup is drained, the taste lingers slightly, the rice receding quickly to leave an aftertaste primarily of the green tea base.

My second pour is significantly darker, a more certain green and less pale. The rice aroma is somewhat diminished compared to the first, smelling much more like a standard green tea but still definitely scented with a comforting toasty grain. As I’ve been told, the second cup of green tea is the best, and this is no exception…the tea has more prominence, the rice still adds its complementary flavor, and it’s a very nice brew, at least to my somewhat undiscerning taste. If you’ve never tried green tea, this style is probably a good introduction, and if you have…it’s still tasty.

As you’ve probably guessed, this is not the first time I’ve prepared green tea…it’s something I’ve had throughout my late childhood and through the years since. It was my maternal grandprents that got me into it, albeit slowly…my grandfather was a neurosurgeon from Japan, and through him and my grandmother I was exposed to many imported treats and specialty goods. We shared sushi, udon, yakisoba, sukiyaki, and dishes I can neither name nor identify any componant of…and, of course tea. My grandparent’s friends in Japan often sent them care packages with excellent teas, and I was privileged enough to have some very good brews as my introduction to the beverage. It was a ritual, almost any time my family visited, to have tea, especially when I was too young for coffee. The small clay pot and cup you see in the picture above were his, from many years back, and they are the strongest reminders of his presence I possess. They’ve served me well through college and the time since, brewing and carrying fragrant teas that hearken back to our times together.

Here’s to you, Grandpa…I miss you.

Leaves, Sheaves, and Berries

We, as humans, have long set aside a special place in our societies for beverages. Water is needed for life, and needed constantly, but those drinks that are made and not found have been used in rituals both social and religious since the times of the most ancient cultures. In ancient Sumerian worship services, beer was the beverage used as a celebration of fertility; in China and Japan, tea became the center of very complex and formalized social ceremony. In pre-colonial South America, chocolate was the literal beverage of the gods, while in the middle east coffee was adopted as part of ritual hospitality. Wine has long held importance to Catholicism for its role in Holy Communion, while spirits have in many cases become symbols of national identity—vodka in Poland, Russia, and many other surrounding states; whiskey in Ireland and Scotland; rum in the Caribbean regions and for a time, the patriotic colonists of the early United States as the first distilled spirit they could produce. Even in everyday use, our beverages are used as a social glue; the classic after-work beer or cocktail, beloved of workers of all stripes and a fine way to spend an evening bonding with those you may know only professionally. The English afternoon tea, more acceptable in some social circles, and often an important means of social contact and information. Going for a coffee together is almost a cliché of dating today, as it offers an acceptably brief, public, and neutral activity in which to get first impressions. Spirits and wines are drunk for life and death both; weddings, funerals, births, and a variety of events both personal and public.

As something so important to society (never mind to my own tastebuds!), I have decided to share my own experiences with some of the most classic and important beverages: tea, coffee, beer, wine, and spirits…perhaps even something more exotic, from time to time. I will attempt to mix in historical and personal information along with the preparation and sensations of each drink. I’m not expert, to be sure, so if it appears I’m doing something grievously wrong to an otherwise good drink, feel free to let me know!

I look forward to sharing my cups with you all, whatever they may be brewed from…cheers!

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