Black Tea Adventure Pt. 1
What comes to mind when you think of a black tea?
Nearly every iced tea is a black tea. Earl Grey, English Breakfast, and most of the Cultured Cup's varied selection of Mariage Freres teas are black tea as well. Chai tea is a black tea. And unlike white, green, oolong, dark, or Rooibos teas, nearly every country that produces tea at all will produce a black tea—so there is a black tea to express every terroir.
So where do we begin? Black tea, of course, simply refers to tea that undergoes full oxidation (the leaf is broken, exposed to the air, and darkens the same way an apple or avocado would). But the process alone fails to suggest what is remarkable about these teas, or the wide diversity of flavors that emerge therein. Black tea can be as delicate and light-bodied as a sencha, it can seem as malty as an English ale, and it can present as tannic as a young Tempranillo.
The Cup's Tasting Panel, therefore, chose to look at a selection of unflavored black teas that spanned the spectrum. And in case you'd like to taste along with us, we're going to progress in order from lightest to most intense—in order to mitigate palate fatigue, and also highlight the intriguing contrasts from one tea to the next.
We find our first two teas in the foothills of the Himalayas. The first comes from the classic tea-growing region of Darjeeling, India, and the other, from relative newcomer Nepal. Tea was introduced to both regions in the mid 19th century, but political turmoil prevented the growth of Nepal's tea trade until the late 1950s. As Nepal has been playing catch-up, Darjeeling has only grown in fame (and $). Known as the Champagne of teas, teas from the notably tiny region of Darjeeling fetch the world's highest prices at yearly auctions.
We will start with our first flush (early spring picking) Darjeeling from the Risheehat Estate, and follow with the Nepali Golden Tips, which is one of our new favorites.
Appearance & aroma of dry leaves
First flush Darjeelings are named for being the very first leaves picked in early Spring, and that youth and freshness seems visible in the leaves themselves. The tea ranges in color from pale spring green to dark brown, with the occasional silver tinged leaf. This bright spectrum does not come from its tips (like the silver of Silver Needle white teas), as much as it does from a truncated oxidation process. Second flushes are more uniformly brown. Our panel had a lot of fun with the aroma—finding a lot of surprising, fresh fruit notes right off the top. It is both floral and fruity with a hint of musk or yeastiness. Then tangerine notes. Grape skin (muscatel), apricots, figs. Maybe strawberry with a cucumber undertone. For fans of Darjeeling, there is little as exciting as opening up a box of just-arrived 1st flush, and being hit with a face-full of its piquant freshness—just lovely.
First flushes are by all accounts, finicky teas to brew. Though their lightness seems to beg for more tea, or longer steeping times, the epic astringency of these teas can quickly overwhelm them when they are overbrewed. Our panel found the Risheehat presented best at about 2.5 g / 8 oz cup (roughly 2 tsp), brewed between 3 min 15 sec and 3 min 30 sec at 195 degrees. Most teas don't bite, but we advise watching this one carefully! You will be richly rewarded.
Sidenote: second steepings of this tea, as well as steepings at lower temperatures (185 or 190), each presented a lighter, more mineral, sweeter cup (with lower astringency). The fruit notes on second steepings will be subdued, and notes of pine needle and resin more available.
Appearance & aroma of brewed tea and infused leaves
The lovely aroma of first flush Darjeeling is hard to describe—because everything will be going on at once. Of course, Darjeeling's telltale muscatel aroma is there, but so too is a spice, almost like a pepper plant, and a woody note—very much like pine. There are hints of honey and citrus, and a floral aspect almost like rose, maybe orange blossom. There's even a mild vegetal layer.
The infusion is a bright golden yellow in color, but the wet leaves garner more interest. Unfurled and expanded, their greenness is fully exposed, as is the large variance in leaf shape and size. It is that variance which likely gives the tea its layers—the most broken leaves lending astringency and strength to the brew, and the larger, more intact leaves providing delicacy and nuance, softening the mouthfeel, preserving the more subtle flavors that makes Darjeeling special.
This is a very light-bodied black tea, as first flush Darjeelings are meant to be, and the absence of significant tannin make this tea present very delicately on the palate. Some hay-like dryness on the tea's lingering finish. Slightly oily mouthfeel, medium astringency on the first steeping, more mineral and less astringent in the second. A crisp and refreshing tea with remarkable clarity.
Flavor & finish
Every first flush Darjeeling will be unique in its combination of muscatel and floral aspects, and this one leans more floral. The muscatel is understated on the palate, giving way to an unexpected complexity of orange blossom and gardenia. There is noticeable fruit on the palate, too, though: peach, ginger, apricot, citrus peel. But the hallmark of this tea might be its lovely texture, balanced with plenty of mineral tension, and highlighted by notes of pine needles, pine resin, and white pepper. The vegetal layers hinted at by the aroma are there too—celery, cucumber, asparagus. In contrast to green teas, the vegetal flavor here really pops—crisp and refreshing. Finally, the finish lingers on the palate in a way that keeps you reaching for your cup for yet another taste. And what more could you want?
Appearance & aroma of dry leaves
As the name indicates, this black tea is dark brown to olive with dusty golden highlights, due to the number of leaf buds (or tips) therein. Leaves are long, spindly, and whole—rolled lengthwise, with a few stems. The aroma is intense, complex, with plenty to draw one in: dried currant, dried roses/autumn leaves, wood, with notes of anise, vanilla, and cocoa. There is another sweetness to the aroma though--perhaps honey, raisin, with a note of pear. Reminds one of a fine tawny port or cognac.
After brewing this tea at the recommended temperature of boiling, consider then trying this tea at 185 degrees for two very different experiences of it. Brewed with boiling water, it will give you a heavily extracted, full-bodied version of this black tea. The tannins, astringency, body, and deep woody flavor notes will all balance out quite nicely.
However, if you'd like to lower astringency and produce a creamier, softer-to-the-palate version of the tea, try brewing it at 185 degrees. The tea will seem more medium-bodied and understated, still with plenty of plum, raisin, and cocoa notes. It is merely a choice of how robust you would like your tea to be.
Appearance & aroma of brewed tea and infused leaves
The infusion can range from a golden to reddish brown (like translucent cherry wood) depending on the water temperature and length of steeping. The aroma, meanwhile, expectedly follows what the dry leaves were advertising: plum, raisin, dried roses and autumn leaves. Bready, yeasty, and earthy, with a pleasant complement of honey (like a top notch clover honey), maybe even caramel and cream—like a nice dark malted beer.
Even when brewed for strength, this tea presents with medium body and low astringency. It is juicy, even voluptuously juicy—seems smooth and delicate despite noticeable tannin that spreads evenly across the palate. Finish is dry, but it doesn't seem to possess the muscle that brisk, broken Breakfast teas have, and wouldn't stand up well to milk.
The lovely and unusual flavor profile for this tea seems to place it halfway between a delicate darjeeling and a bold keemun—there is fruit skin on the attack, some floral notes, but then a generous follow through of caramel, raisin, rice, cereal grain, and cocoa. The finish is a bit toasty with a sense of toffee, and finally a lingering echo of pear. A couple of members of a panel did not find this tea as appealing as others, but the ones who loved it had never had anything like it before—and they've already ordered more of it.
In the week following, we will abandon the foothills of the Himalayas for the darker side of black tea, and taste through a brisk Assam, a sturdy Keemun, and a similar style of tea from Guatemala. It will be quite a departure from the two teas discussed above, and a great example of the influence of terroir. See you soon!