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Kyle Stewart of the Cultured Cup

Kyle Stewart of the Cultured Cup

Integral to Texsom International Wine Awards (TIWA) is the Sommelier Retreat. Top sommeliers from across North America are invited to help serve TIWA writing tasting notes for award winning wines, and also doing clean up throughout the competition and after, while attending the accompanying Sommelier Retreat. Integral to their experience though is an educational and training component where they are able to work with mentors from the sommelier community to develop their writing skills, do tasting exams with Master Sommeliers, and take a series of seminars on aspects of the wine, beverage, food, and hospitality industry with experts in their field. Seminars range from the business side of restaurant wine programs to English Sparkling Wines (taught this year by the venerable Laura Rhys MS from Britain) to this year a seminar on Tea from a Certified Tea Specialist, Kyle Stewart. I led a seminar for the Sommelier Retreat this year as well on Arizona wines. As a result, I was invited to sit in and attend this year’s other sessions. The tea seminar was fascinating and fantastic. (I unfortunately arrived too late to attend Laura’s English sparkling wine course but I heard it was excellent as well.)

Kyle became excited by tea decades ago when he realized it helped focus his attention and he enjoyed the complexity of flavors. Soon after he pursued the Certified Tea Specialist designation from the Speciality Tea Institute and has since become an avid tea advocate running his own coffee and tea business, the Cultured Cup, and also leading seminars on tea, while staying up to date via trips to tea regions and regular tea tastings. He compares the process very much to what we do in wine and by the end of the seminar the parallels were obvious. Just as we study and research the fine tuned aspects of wine growing and production tea can be studied. The picking techniques, growing styles, and varietal complexity of the tea plant greatly resembles what we find in wine. It turns out tasting tea is rather similar as well.

Pu’er, a brick of Chinese tea

As Kyle explained, tea has a 5000 year history. In its origin the drink was used medicinally as a tonic. The early uses of the plant arose in China where people took and steeped pieces of it directly so that the beverage included a rather bitter element. In Burma the leaves were also used as food and the tradition continues today in a Burmese Tea Salad. Kyle said that the first time he enjoyed the dish he loved the flavors so much he ate two back to back and then did not sleep for two days. By eating the entire leaf in that way he absorbed higher levels of caffeine as well. Eventually when people began to process the leaves of the plant they were also able to hone its flavors and structure in the cup leading to it becoming a social beverage enjoyed for pleasure.

Once tea became a more popular drink it also became an exchange commodity. It grew only in certain parts of China however and also is rather delicate to transport so ways to make it safe for travel had to develop. The Pu’er (shown above) is an early form of such ingenuity. The leaves were compressed into a quite firm brick of tea that could then be broken into smaller pieces and steeped. The entire Pu’er can make around 150 cups, and the compressed leaves are even strong enough that they can be steeped multiple times (leading to far more cups than the standard). Such bricks were carried around the Tea and Horse Road (which essentially overlaid the more well-known Silk Road) and used for trade. The Tea and Horse Road gets its name from the quite literal trade of Chinese Tea bricks for Tibetan Horses. From what we know, 10 to 13 bricks of tea could fetch 1 Tibetan horse.

As Kyle clarified, tea is a type of infusion made from a very particular plant. Though the word is used rather loosely today, in actuality tea refers only to a drink infused from dried, crushed leaves of the camelia sinensis plant. Beverages infused from other plants such as rooibos, mint, ginger or other flowers, herbs, or spices properly speaking are infusions or, for the French, tiasne, but not tea.

Camelia sinensis has two major varieties. The Chinese variety is known as camelia sinensis sinensis, has a smaller leaf and does better when brewed at comparatively cooler temperatures. He brews any of these cultivars at 175 degrees F. Darjeeling, of course, is an example.

The Indian variety is known as camelia sinensis assamica and has impressively large elephant ear sized leaves. 1000 year old tea trees still exist today. They are considered a cultural treasure that are not used for producing tea today but would have served emperors in their prime.

Just like wine, tea plants adapt to their environment and, as a result, these two varieties have produced hundreds of different cultivars with unique flavor and structure. The differences also lead to very specific cultivation techniques as well as specific plucking methods for making the tea itself in various styles. As Kyle explained, the quality and flavor of specific teas depends on three key elements: the growing conditions of the plant with vintage variation even being a crucial aspect of fine teas, the care in how the leaves are plucked, and the way in which the plant is processed. Amazingly, the weather 1 to 2 weeks prior to the tree being plucked is the most critical time period for impacting flavor. Excessive rain in this time, for example, can overly dilute the flavors leading to imbalanced tea.

side by side tea tasting

There are five major categories of tea as well as one more utterly rare one. The very finest teas in the world can actually fetch as much as $30,000 per kilo. The five major categories include (progressing in order of intensity and processing complexity, loosely speaking) White, Green, Oolong, Black, and Dark, of which Pu’er (shown above) is a type. Additionally, Yellow tea is distinct from these five, however it is so uncommon it is rarely discussed. In his life Kyle said he’s only had Yellow tea once or twice. It has the most complex processing of the types of tea and is quite expensive.

White tea (shown at the top in the image above – if you’re on a mobile the image sometimes shifts. In that case it is to the right of the green tea) has the simplest processing method. The leaves and leaf buds are gathered – White peony includes both leaves and buds, for example, while Ying Chen includes only leaf buds (which are essentially young leaves), not more developed leaves. It takes 4000 buds to create one pound of tea, and all must be hand plucked so it is quite expensive. How and what is plucked determines the style of white tea. Leaves or leaf buds are then air dried on a screen and no shaping of the leaves occurs. Without shaping there is no cellular breakage, which also prevents any oxidation from happening. As a result, white tea is the lightest in flavor with a tendency towards floral aromas, and the highest in anti-oxidants. Kyle recommends steeping white tea with 175 degree F water for about 3 minutes as the tea is delicate and one wants to capture the nuances of the leaf.

Green tea (shown left above) has specific leaf plucking patterns for different green tea types. The leaves from the variety behind green tea are very stiff and crackle readily so the leaves are set out to wilt after plucking to soften them up, much like the way lettuce leaves wilt when left to air after harvest. Once the leaves have softened they can be moved into shape without breakage. Once leaves are shaped into the appropriate form for the style of green tea the leaf is immediately heated to keep it from oxidizing. This step is crucial as oxidation is an important part of what distinguishes green from black tea. In the heating process, Chinese green tea is ironed or pressed to a hot surface while Japanese green tea is steamed. In comparison, Chinese green tea tends to show nuttier flavors while Japanese green tea is all about umami and vegetal notes. With the delicacy of green tea it should be steeped in a similar fashion to white tea – with 175 degree F water for around 3 minutes.

Oolong tea lets the tea leaves oxidize anywhere from 10 to 95%. The little bit not oxidized lends an additional flavor complexity to the tea in comparison to black tea, which is fully oxidized. The tea master determines when to stop oxidation by aroma and feel of the leaf in relation to the style desired. With the dance of oxidized and unoxidized notes Oolong tea can be quite floral. The intentional oxidation releases quite different aromas from the plant such that an Oolong can be full of natural fruits and flower notes, even tasting exactly like peaches, for example, without any added flavors. Oolong tea can be hot or cold brewed. For hot brewing (shown right above – or, across from the green tea) Oolong he recommends using 195 degree F water for 4 minutes. Cold brewing (shown bottom above – or, left from the green tea), he clarifies, requires more leaves but since the leaves are not extracted in the same way by heat they can be steeped repeatedly and reveal more pretty, uplifted flavors. Ultimately, then, cold brewed Oolong ends up being more economical as well.

Dark tea includes an additional step of fermentation. The method arose from the need to safely transport the beverage at a time when temperature and shelf controls were not possible as they are today. By fermenting the leaf the shelf quality remains consistent. Such teas are generally sold as bricks, such as the image above, or formed cake. Pu’er is one type of dark tea that originates from a specific area of the Yunnan province and is so recognized because it is aged in specific caves of its region, which impart characteristics to the tea much like the limestone caves of Roquefort inform the cheese of that region.

Kyle additionally recommends that filtered water is best used for making fine teas. The mineral content of tap water tends to overpower the more delicate flavors of a high quality tea so that even just a Brita filter improves the flavor. He cautions though that one should not use distilled water.

Interestingly, Kyle has worked with wine specialists to lead wine and tea tastings where in some cases wine and tea pairings are done such as green Kukicha stem tea paired alongside a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, for example. He also though suggests that teas can be an appropriate palate cleanser through serious wine tastings as they not only shift the palate but also refocus the mind.

Additionally he points out the playfulness and import of serving vessels. Cold brewed teas can be served in aperitif and cocktail glasses quite nicely to elevate the experience. Finer examples of Oolong teas do nicely in smaller porcelain. Part of the tea experience that he values is that power of being in the moment present with the full range of sensory experience as well as the steeping process.

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