After twenty years in the business, Kyle and Phil have continued to rely not only on their own experiences and palates, but also on those of their employees and customers, in their ongoing exploration of the world's best teas and coffees. The Cultured Cup's Tasting Panel is designed to be an extension of that very idea, a team of dedicated explorers of the world of tea and coffee—its flavors, complexities, and origins—in search of what makes each special.
The panelists are each connected to The Cultured Cup as current or former employees, long time customers, and/or tea and coffee connoisseurs, with experienced palates and diverse backgrounds. Through our upcoming series of Taste Adventures, we will explore the world through the terroir of tea—choosing for each a regional or stylistic focus, evaluating a selection of tea, and talking about how we brew them and why. Before we get started with our first Taste Adventure, 'meet' our Taste Panelists here.
Our first adventure is taking us from the Chinese province of Zhejiang, where we taste two remarkable Chinese green teas, to the southwestern island of Kyushu, home of our Kukicha, then finally to Uji, the legendary Japanese tea-growing region (and home of matcha) located between Osaka and Kyoto, on Japan's central island of Honshu.
For our first blog, we're going to stay in Zhejiang (then for part two on Friday, we'll tell you all about the delightful Japanese teas we've been trying). Zhejiang province sits on the coast of the East China Sea, north of Fujian province and south of Shanghai, and its most famous tea is Dragonwell or Lung Ching. The Cultured Cup has carried a Dragonwell (an unflavored green tea) for as long as I can remember, but like a fine wine—that same tea can vastly differ in quality depending on who grew it, how it was harvested, and how it was processed. Different vintages can even bring you different results in your cup—and that's why we are looking at The Cup's Dragonwell right now, because it is from a new source—and has just arrived.
Appearance & aroma of dry leaves
Fan-like leaves, wide, flat sticks, medium yellow with a green hue, to olive, to forest green. Are wider than Sencha needles. This comes from the process, unique among Chinese green teas but common for Japanese ones, of flattening the leaves. All green teas are withered, heated, and shaped—but Dragonwell, along with several other Chinese green teas, has a characteristic flat shape. Japanese sencha, by contrast, is always steamed rather than wok-fired, and always shaped into a flat needle. Dry, the leaves of this Dragonwell give off warm toast, pear/apple, and a hint of the vegetal notes to follow.
Our panel employed a small range of brewing methods, yielding surprisingly diverse results. While using a little more tea (3 g/8 oz) for the recommended time and temperature (3 min at 175), the tea presented as more astringent and more bitter. When using less tea (2 g), the tea presented more focused toasted and vegetal notes. Using less time (2:30), the tea's vegetal notes seemed fresher, and more raw. Lower temperature (170), even more delightfully, produced both floral and fruit-forward nuances otherwise overpowered.
Appearance & aroma of brewed tea and infused leaves
Wet, the leaves' aroma is toasty and sweet, nutty, and reminiscent of fresh greens or cooked vegetables—asparagus, green bean, pea. Also, fresh garden flowers. The wet leaves are markedly more aromatic, of course, and captivating. A pleasure unto themselves. The aroma of the brewed tea itself follows those expectations: the clear, golden-yellow cup gives an initial aroma of nuttiness (maybe chestnut or walnut) which develops into something fresh and green as early Spring (fresh, raw chard or spinach). It is also noticeably mineral, with notes of stone and iron.
Light-bodied but hard-edged, this Dragonwell seems both juicy and dry at once—like an acid-driven dry Riesling, or a refreshingly hoppy pale ale. It has a mineral astringency, but its weight on the palate is unmistakably delicate.
Flavor & finish
The tea opens with hints of walnut or chestnut, and then its dominant vegetal notes take center stage before a nice, toasty finish. Fresh buttered green beans and cooked spinach, coupled with some floral sweetness. It is balanced, and even mixes in some fruitiness—notes of currant, perhaps. It is complex, and carries its depth due to its minerality, and its edge of astringency.
Appearance & aroma of dry leaf
This tea is named for its shape (curled) and its color variance (which comes from the tips, or tea leaf buds). As such—we can see immediately that though this is also an unflavored Chinese green tea from the Zhejiang province, its harvesting and/or processing have vastly changed the resulting tea. Firstly, the tea is twisted, rolled, and coiled into a variety of little knots, mostly a dark olive green with flashes of silver. The aroma is floral rather than vegetal, and almost sweet, with a hint of hay, reminding us at once of white teas and white wine (maybe a Riesling). It is a pleasant and inviting fragrance.
Curled Dragon is one of the most inviting and approachable green teas you will encounter, in part because of its forgiving character. Our panel strayed from the brewing method of 2.5 tsp per 8 oz for 3-4 minutes, using both less tea and less time in some cases, and using more tea with more time in others—and every one of us was more than pleased with the results. Less tea and less time produced a cup that was delicate and clean with floral aromatics and a shadow of astringency, and followed with a lingering, sweet finish. More tea and more time, meanwhile, pulled out everything the leaves have to offer: a stunning complexity of fruit, spices, earthiness, and flowers. Longer steeping times brought out more astringency, of course, but the tea still found pleasant balance due to its dynamic expression of flavor.
Appearance & aroma of brewed tea and infused leaves
The cup presents a clear, brilliant, golden yellow brew with a delicate, floral aroma that echoes the impression received from the dry leaves. Here, because the tea is not dominantly vegetal, it remains both approachable for people beginning to explore the world of green teas, and inviting to those who are already intimately familiar.
This tea is light-bodied, more so than the Dragonwell, and has only a mild astringency with little to no bitterness (even when brewed strong). In the absence of that astringency, the tea presents itself as almost softer, or juicier than other Chinese green teas. The tea weighs on the palate almost like a lightly oxidized, floral oolong.
Flavor & finish
The most common tasting notes among our panel were actually stone fruits, baking spices, and a long lingering sweet finish. By those notes alone, you might believe you were reading about a medium-oxidized oolong, or a hefeweizen—but no, this remarkably complex tea presents a bevy of flavor despite its subtle presentation. Among the details we were reminded of were peach, pear, apple pie, cinnamon or nutmeg, toast, pie crust, wildflowers, and steamed or buttered greens. This tea is compact, and it evolves in the cup as it cools. A very elegant tea.
Though neither of these teas was flavored, the diverse natural flavors of each wowed our palates with equal parts complexity and freshness. Check back in a few days for our visit to Japan, where we will be tasting Kukicha, Hand-plucked Sencha, and Matcha.