Friday, May 19, 2017

The Tea Crane: A Spectrum of Japanese Teas, A Tea Review

Yesterday was one of the best days EVER!! I finally went to the local Art museum, the Nelson-Atkins Museum, for the longest time I avoided it because I thought it was another modern art gallery. No offense to modern art but I am not a fan usually, classical art is my jam. As is history (as long time readers and people who know me are well aware, I am obsessed with history) so you can all laugh at me for taking so long to visit the museum. At said museum, I was able to see a mummy in person (couldn't sniff it sadly, they in theory smell amazing) something I have wanted to do since I started my Egypt obsession at age four, an enormous Guan Yin statue from the Liao or Jin Dynasty (really their collection of Chinese art is amazing, really geeked out of the Warring States period pieces) and what might have been the highlight for me, seeing my favorite painting by my favorite artists...ever. St John in the Wilderness by Caravaggio. It is such a powerful piece and being able to get face to face with it is still mindblowing. I keep periodically squeeing over it and I am already planning my next visit!

Ok, enough art and history geeking out (I really could go on about it all day, just ask Ben!) I am here to geek out about tea! Today I am looking at four fantastic teas from The Tea Crane, a shop specializing in quality Japanese tea. I have been following Tyas Sosen's blog on Japanese tea and culture for a while, so I was tickled to try some of the teas he considers favorites. I was especially pleased that he sent along both Oolong and Wakocha (Black Tea) alongside Roasted Bancha and Sencha. I adore Sencha and pretty much all roasted teas, but find myself regularly seeking out Japanese black, oolong, and dark teas because they fascinate me! Plus I have to give a shout out to the fantastic information cards sent along with the tea, I wish more companies did this!

The first tea I am looking at is Mountain-Grown Organic Roasted Bancha - The Mountain At Rest, and what an evocative name The Mountains At Rest is!The aroma of the big, fluffy, roasted leaves is lovely and so comforting (at least I find it so, but roasted teas are like that for me) note of tobacco, black walnut, gentle burnt cedar wood, autumn leaves, and a slightly sweet toasted bread note. The smell reminds me of bonfires on a cool late summer night up in the North Woods by the lake, it calls to mind very specific memories but lacks the overly strong smoke smell of standing next to the bonfire. The steeped leaves bring in notes of sweet toasted sesame candy and dark honey with undertones of pinto beans (I ate them a lot as a kid, probably another reason why I find roasted teas so comforting!)

Tasting this tea is a real treat, gentle sweet toasted bread blend with black walnuts and cedar wood with a thick and supple mouthfeel. The sweetness is subtle, being similar to very light molasses, this compliments the woody and ever so gentle smokiness that is more the ghost of a fire than actual smokiness. I have always found it hard to accurately describe the transient moment between roasted taste and smoke, it is immensely subtle and not adequately described by either note alone. It is one of those notes that my brain does not register as a taste but more an experience as it draws on many happy memories of autumnal romps and late summer nights. Speaking of summer, this tea is amazing cold steeped, bringing the natural sweetness to the forefront and just being so refreshing and roasted. When I was younger I would frequent the local international market and stock up on imported bottled of Japanese iced tea, my favorite was always the roasted, and having it made from a very quality and rich tea makes it infinitely better.

Minami-Sayaka Organic Oolong is the next tea I looked at, and this tea intrigued me as it appears to be a very green Oolong, compared to the other Japanese Oolongs which have either been roasted or heavily oxidized. The aroma of the curly leaves is quite potent and sweet, blending flowery nectar of hyacinth, orchids, wisteria, and a touch of underlying crisp green vegetation. This tea very much smells like a blooming garden and I am a bee lost amid the flowers. Brewing the leaves intensifies the aroma of flowers, especially the wisteria which made me homesick as it is one of my mom's favorite flowers.

This Oolong has impressive longevity! The smooth and sweet tea sticks around for nine very solid steeps, which I found surprising and pleasant. The dominant taste in this tea was definitely wisteria, with undertones of orchid and crushed vegetation giving it a lingering green taste at the finish. Later steeps have a much stronger floral note, the crushed vegetation fading to be replaced by ghostly orange blossom which was quite tantalizing. Towards the end of this tea's life long lingering notes of wisteria haunted me in the aftertaste. Overall this is a wonderfully refreshing tea, my only regret was drinking it before bed since it lasted more steeps than I was expecting so I ended up staying up later than I meant with it!

The next tea I looked at was Mountain-Grown Native Sencha - The Mountains of Yamato, a very vibrantly green Sencha. The aroma was quite refreshing, with notes of toasted nori, cooked zucchini, sesame seeds, and spinach...typical things you expect from a Sencha. However, there was more to this tea than the typical, notes of spicebush flowers and sweet woodruff blend with a touch of English ivy for what might be the most herbaceous smelling Sencha I have encountered! Steeping the tea really brings out the sweet woodruff and zucchini notes with undertones of apple blossoms.

So, this is not your typical vegetal umami Sencha, true it is somewhat umami with notes of toasted nori, zucchini, and cauliflower, but it also had notes of apple blossoms, heady sweet woodruff, distant sweet vanilla, and a long lingering nuttiness. A second steep brings in the more classic umami notes of fresh sea air, cooked spinach, lettuce, bean sprouts, and a finish of zucchini (I do really love zucchini so much) with a finish of cooked tofu that lingers for a bit and honestly drinking this tea made me hungry because it tasted like food! Sadly I tried cold steeping it and most the unique nuances of this tea were lost, so definitely stick to traditional steepings with this one. I do, however, need to try ice steeping this tea, I feel that might be quite intense!

I saved the one I was most excited for last, the Organic First Flush Seed-Grown Wa-Kocha Black Tea, I adore Japanese black teas, I find them so crisp and refreshing, ideal morning teas while still being mellow enough to enjoyed all day (assuming you are like me and more or less intolerant to caffeine) The aroma of this black tea, in particular, is sweet and crisp, notes of sweet potatoes and orange blossoms blend with toffee and undertones of yuzu marmalade. I really like how it blends starchy sweet rich notes with citric crisp notes, that combination really works for me. Once it is steeped the tea takes on a slightly fruitier quality of mangosteen and a bit of (I kid you not) carambola.

What a pleasantly light and crisp mouthfeel! Not astringent or dry, the tea is like eating an orange, being slippery and smooth with an underlying brightness that really livens up the palate. The taste starts out nutty and a bit starchy, with a sesame and yam combination, this pretty quickly switches to mangosteen and orange blossoms with a lingering orange marmalade finish that sticks around into the aftertaste. It sticks around for several solid steeps, keeping my mouth very occupied by the enlivening citrus notes, I find myself tempted to cold steep this one but admit I don't want to take away from my hot tea stash since I find it immensely tasty. All of the teas I tried from The Tea Crane impressed me and left me curious to try some of the other offerings from the shop!

This tea was sent for review purposes by the company.

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