Thursday, November 15, 2018

Review: Golden Yunnan from The Republic Of Tea

It's nice to have a tea or two in the stash that's easy to acquire, fairly inexpensive, and of course tastes good. Many of the teas from The Republic of Tea can be found in certain grocery stores and health food stores, and today I'm reviewing their Golden Yunnan black tea.

I usually prefer to focus on smaller tea companies but I thought it would be nice to give Republic of Tea a try since it's been years since I've had their teas. When the company's 'Minister of Creative Ventures' reached out to send a few samples, I decided to request this black tea since I've seen it in our local Whole Foods, so I know it's reasonably easy to obtain. 

The Dry Leaves
This Golden Yunnan is an orthodox black tea from Yunnan, China. You may also see the same tea referred to as Dian Hong. There are a good amount of lovely fuzzy golden buds scattered throughout. I served this tea during Office Tea Club and everyone had fun touching the fuzzy leaves. The dry leaves have a bittersweet chocolate aroma with a touch of roasted sweet potato. 

The Brew
I decided to brew this in a gaiwan, and it worked quite well. The tea brews to a light mahogany (or dark mahogany, if you're like me and tend to be heavy handed with the leaf and steep time) with dominant notes of malt and chocolate. There is a slightly tangy citrus note as well as lingering spice. It has a thick mouthfeel and is quite soothing. A good tea to have on chilly mornings or crisp afternoons. Add in a couch, a fireplace, and maybe a few butter cookies and you wouldn't need to check up on me for a few days...

The Takeaway and Possible Pairing
This Golden Yunnan tea has enough flavor to drink in the morning (I've been enjoying it as the first tea I brew when I get to work), but is also a nice way to cozy up in the afternoon. As I mentioned, the Office Tea Club enjoyed this one, and we nibbled on cranberry spice cake along with the tea. The cranberries were a little too tart for the tea, as there is a slight citrusy note in the brew that starts to take over with the introduction of the cranberries. Not a bad pairing, just not to my liking. I'd stick with something with buttery and/or chocolatey, but maybe a milk chocolate so the flavors don't get too muddled.

This is a good tea to recommend for novice tea drinkers as it's very forgiving. It can be oversteeped  and it still produce a smooth and flavorful cup. As I mentioned, this is a tea that's easy to find locally, which also makes it a good choice for beginners. I'll definitely keep this one around the office for the cold winter days that are right around the corner. Thank you to The Republic of Tea for providing this sample for review.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Cozy Up With Masala Chai Hot Chocolate

The days are getting shorter, the trees are shedding their technicolor leaves, and I'm starting to pile on the warm sweaters and burrow under cuddly blankets. Naturally, my mind starts drifting towards teas that have a little extra something- comfort, warmth, richness. Winter also means I'm looking for spice and sweet. The only time I really add flavor or sweetness to my tea is for a soothing cup of masala chai. Lately I've been bubbling warm pots of hot cocoa on the stove, and the other day I decided to add components of masala chai into my cocoa. There are many recipes out there for chai hot chocolate, but I'm rather fond of the one that I've come up with. The tea flavor really comes through, and the rich chocolate flavor makes everything super comforting and decadent. This is a warming, hearty cup with flavors (and feels) that will linger well past the last sip.

For the black tea in this recipe, you'll want to use something that brews up nice and strong. We don't need any fancy teas here, a broken leaf or even CTC will do just fine if you have it. I like to use a Kenyan or Irish Breakfast blend, and I've even used bags of PG tips when we have them on hand (my husband likes them, and I admit I don't mind a cuppa now and again). 

My big secret for this masala chai hot chocolate is to start with just the milk, water, ginger, and cinnamon. I like to heat this up and let it barely bubble for about 5-10 minutes. I find the ginger and cinnamon need time to infuse the milk, otherwise they get lost in the stronger flavors of cocoa and cardamom. A very low heat is key here, as the milk will very quickly turn into a volcano of foam cascading onto the stove top.

Tea Happiness' Masala Chai Hot Chocolate
serves 2 (or one very decadent cup)

1.5 cups milk (I like 2% cow's milk but you can use any milk of choice)
1/2 cup water
1 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and smashed
1 cinnamon stick
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (I love this one)
2 tbsp (or 2 tea bags) black tea
6 cardamom pods
5 whole cloves
5 peppercorns
3-4 tbsp sugar (to taste)

In a small saucepan combine the water, milk, ginger, and cinnamon stick. Slowly heat this up and let it slightly bubble bubble (do not let this boil or you'll have a milky mess all over the stovetop!) for about 5-10 minutes. Reduce heat and gently whisk in the cocoa powder and sugar (start with 3 tbsp of sugar, taste, and then add as desired). Once this is well incorporated, add the tea and remaining spices. Allow to simmer gently for 5 minutes. Stir occasionally to make sure you don't get a 'skin' on the top. Strain the mixture into a small teapot, and serve.

You could certainly garnish the masala chai hot chocolate with whipped cream, or sprinkle additional spices on top, but I like it straight up. The flavors are amazing and I don't think it needs any further embellishment!

Trust me, your kitchen will smell amazing after you whisk up a pot of this masala chai hot chocolate! Everyone will come running in for a taste. You can easily make a larger batch of this, but be sure to monitor the sugar and cocoa powder and taste as you go. 

The kids and I had so much fun sampling various versions of this masala chai hot chocolate, until we found just the right combination of flavors. If you'd like to serve it to little ones, I'd suggest omitting the tea, or at least cutting back on it. It's definitely got a bit of a caffeine kick from all the tea and cocoa. You can also use sweetened cocoa powder or a good quality hot chocolate mix in this recipe, but be sure to omit the extra sugar if you do. 

This weekend, cozy up with a few books, a big blanket and a few cups of this masala chai hot chocolate, and I guarantee you'll be ready for the blustery winter ahead.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

History of the Children's Tea Set

My recent teaware history posts led me to learn all about 18th century European porcelain. During my research I came across a reference to an early children's tea set. I thought it would be interesting to learn a little bit more about the history behind children's tea sets. So of course, I went off on a research adventure that I'm ready to share with all of you.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Review: East Frisian BOP from Upton Tea Imports

Last week I wrote about the East Frisian tea ritual that creates a deeply satisfying cup of tea. I loved learning the history and culture behind this tea. This week's post is a review of the East Frisian BOP blend from Upton Tea Imports that I used in last week's post. I've been drinking it all week with and without the added cream and sugar, so it's definitely time I give it a full review.

It's not easy to find true East Frisian blends in the US, and I was excited to see that Upton sells more than one. Upton has two main blends to choose from, the BOP (broken orange pekoe) blend and the TGFOP blend (tippy golden flowery orange pekoe). I'd normally go for the TGFOP which has full leaves, lots of tips, and more complexity. But, I wanted the closest thing to a strong East Frisian blend, so I went with the BOP. The broken leaves steep up quickly and produce a stronger brew. Also, Upton referred to the BOP blend as the 'classic' brew, so that sealed the deal for me.

The dry leaves
The dry leaves have a raisiny aroma, with honey and a bit of malt. Smells like an Indian or Sri Lankan tea blend, and Upton's website says it's an Assam blend. The leaves are orthodox (whole, not CTC) broken leaves, with some lovely golden tips peppered throughout.

Tea without cream and sugar, so you can see the color

I tasted the tea two ways- straight, and prepared with the addition of sugar and cream in the East Frisian tradition. This tea was blended for the addition of cream and sugar (as many breakfast blends are as well), but I wanted to try it both ways to get a true feeling for the tea. I prepared the tea as instructed- 1 tsp per 6 ounces of water, steeped with boiled water for 3 minutes. The tea steeps up to a beautiful dark mahogany color. Sips of the tea on its own are quite bracing but surprisingly not too astringent. There isn't much nuance, but it's malty with bitter notes of unsweetened chocolate. The liquor is a bit drying on the palate with a malty finish. It's fully bodied and thick. I think I'd cut back slightly on the amount of tea if I was drinking this straight. 

The wet leaves
Pouring this tea over a lump of sugar (kluntje) and adding cream (no stirring!) creates a different cup altogether. It's still quite strong but the cream and sugar tempers the bitterness. The first few sips are quite potent, then the cream turns everything turns into a big cozy hug. It's quite decadent, especially when you get the sweetness from the kluntje. 

This is a great tea for the morning, I've been sipping on it while getting the kids ready for school and it gives me quite a caffeine jolt. This stuff is potent! As I mentioned, if you are preparing it straight you may want to play around with the amount of leaf if it's a little too strong for your taste. With cream and sugar, this is the perfect way to unwind on a chilly winter afternoon. I don't usually prefer adding milk and sweetener to my tea, but this blend really benefits from it. Each sip feels as if you're being wrapped in a cozy blanket.

I definitely want to give the TGFOP blend I mentioned earlier a try, just to see how much it differs from the BOP blend. That could be an interesting comparison of the leaf grades. I imagine the TGFOP blend would also be more drinkable without milk, as I usually prefer not to add it to my morning cup. If you are sensitive to caffeine, definitely keep this as a morning sip. But if you're not prone to the jitters, it's also a great afternoon pick-me-up. I'd recommend brewing the BOP blend in a Western style teapot, as the leaves are too small for a gongfu method. But of course, it's always fun to experiment.

To lean more about this tea you can visit the Upton Tea Imports website here. As I mentioned, they have other East Frisian blends to check out as well. To learn more about the East Frisian ritual of taking tea, you can read my write-up here. Thank you to Upton Tea Imports for this sample! It helped me learn all about the East Frisian tea tradition.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Tea History: East Frisian Tea

Every tea tells a story. Today's post is about a cup of tea that feels like a novella: complete with a beginning, middle, and a sweet ending. The characters are all strong on their own but they share a common thread. At first the story is a bit disconcerting, as the flavor is so rich. But then as it lingers, it’s pure comfort. You can’t put this story down. You want to keep going, to see how it progresses. The next few sips balance out the narrative. The tea is super strong, independent enough to stand up to the cream. You're rooting for the main character. The last few sips reveal a surprising sweet finish, and you wish the adventure didn't have to end. This is the story told in a cup of East Frisian tea.

Let's uncover the authors of this story. One of most surprising tea drinking areas in the world is East Frisia. Have you heard about this small pocket of passionate tea drinkers? East Frisia is in the North West corner of Germany, right on the coast. It is right next to the Netherlands, and its location is one of the reasons why they drink tea. I recently had the opportunity to try an East Frisian blend of tea and starting reading about the full ritual behind it. Of course I ended up doing a bit more research. Turns out East Frisia has a very interesting tea history woven into one complex cup of tea.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Teaware History: The Brown Betty: The People's Teapot

The other day I was clearing out the top shelf of my kitchen cabinet and uncovered a Brown Betty teapot I was gifted a few years ago. I love the teapot but it doesn't get used much since it's so big. As I sat staring at it, I started to wonder about its history. I knew it was a very old style but that's about all I could remember. I had a very 'Jerry Seinfeld' moment, thinking 'what's the deal?' Well, I did a bit of digging and found a few interesting tidbits. Turns out it's a very big deal indeed. Read on for a bit of teapot history and design, and how to find a Brown Betty of your very own.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

British Tea History: From Tea Bowl To Teacup

I was recently reading a bit of history on 18th century England and noticed a passage where the author mentions an aristocratic woman drinking a 'dish' of tea.  It made me think of the post I wrote back in March about the value of 18th century teaware. I started researching tea bowls a little deeper, and somehow ended up down an ebay rabbit hole. A few days later I was the proud owner of a British tea bowl and saucer. I know, I shouldn't be allowed to have internet access; teaware just magically shows up at my door! The new teaware inspired me to learn more about British tea bowls, how they were constructed, and when the handle was added. 

Early European tea drinking gained popularity in the 1700s. England wasn't the first European country to sip tea, but it's where the beverage really took off, so I'm focusing on British teaware for this post. At first England imported its teaware from China because it was difficult to locally replicate the fine porcelain used in Chinese teaware. There were many pottery producers in England at the time, but they were unable to recreate the delicate Chinese porcelain. The recipe for Chinese porcelain was a well guarded secret.

A Family of Three at Tea by Richard Collins (1727). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Hard vs. Soft
During my online auction search for early British tea bowls, I noticed a few vendors mentioned the cup was made of 'softpaste'. At the time I had no idea what it meant, but it seemed like it indicated an earlier tea bowl. True porcelain is referred to as 'hardpaste'.  Until about 1760 European manufacturers were using softpaste porcelain using materials such as steatite or soapstone to get a porcelain-like material. During my research I found the helpful book British Tea And Coffee Cups by Steven Goss that discusses the materials, and early British teaware:
Softpaste porcelain began in about 1745 at Chelsea and within just a few years there were also factories at nearby Bow, Vauxhall and Limehouse...tea wares were amongst the first items to be produced and many of the pieces were decorated with oriental scenes, often copied straight from Chinese imports...Softpaste porcelains needed to be glazed as the body would otherwise be porous. 
To decorate softpaste, bowls were either left uncolored with molded flowers (this technique was called blanc-de-Chine) or painted blue and white. The blue decorations were commonly used because oxide of cobalt (the blue paint) was able to withstand the high firing temperatures. Other colors would be hand-painted or transferred onto the bowls and saucers after the first firing, and then fired again at a lower temperature.  These colorful decorations were mixed with a lead base. The use of so much lead in the glazes led to many instances of lead poisoning for the potters working with the materials.

The formula for hardpaste porcelain was finally discovered in Germany, but to be feasibly manufactured in Britain the materials had to be sourced locally. Once again from the book British Tea And Coffee Cups:
Although the formula was eventually discovered at Meissen in Germany in the early eithteenth century, it did not reach Britain until about 1760, when an apothecary called William Cookworth found china clay (kaolin) and china stone (petuntse) in Cornwall and subsequently set up his factory in Plymouth...These two raw materials are essential to the production of hardpaste porcelain as made by the Chinese.

Can You Handle It?
Many sources say a handle was added to tea bowls because the high-temperature black tea the British enjoyed made the cups too hot to hold comfortably. I also read with the invention of hardpaste porcelain it was easier to produce a handle that wouldn't break during the firing process. But I found an article from NPR that says something a bit different:
Christina Prescott-Walker, a European ceramics expert and the director of the Chinese ceramics department at Sotheby's, believes the invention of the handle may have been a fashion statement more than a utilitarian choice. "In England, tea bowls were still being made as late as 1800," she tells The Salt. Faulkner writes in his book that the original bowls were perceived as more "authentically oriental" than their handled cousins.
The tea bowl and saucer that I purchased online (pictured above and below) seems to be from the early 19th century, which certainly helps to prove this point. Cups became more ornamental in the late 18th century, and this could be when the addition of the handle really kicked in. 

What About The Saucer?
The use of a saucer appears to be function over form. It may have been used to hold the bowl while drinking, and keep cups stable while serving tea to others. I also read articles where it's assumed the early saucers were more bowl-shaped (see my saucer in the picture above) because hot tea was poured into the saucer to cool, and then sipped. I had a difficult time finding proof of this, but it is mentioned in several articles.

A closer look at my saucer

Tips For Collecting
If you are interested in collecting antique British tea bowls, there are a few things to keep in mind. The earlier pieces usually did not have a maker's mark on them, so it can be difficult to pinpoint the factory it came from. The absence of a mark doesn't mean it's a fake piece. But even when you do see a mark, it's difficult to know where the bowl came from as many factories copied the marks and decorations of other well known companies. As I mentioned, sometimes sellers will mention if the piece is 'soft paste'. This is a good indication of the age of the piece (if accurate) as it's difficult to determine otherwise. Since it's difficult to truly know the age of a tea bowl unless you're really serious with your teaware collecting, just go with what appeals to you.

In terms of style, there are many different ways the bowls would have been decorated: sets were either molded with flowers and left white (blanc-de-Chine), or  could be fired with cobalt and then hand painted. Patterns were also transferred onto the pottery. This was done by etching or engraving the design to a copper plate, then inking the plate. A special paper was then applied to the plate until it absorbed the ink and was then transferred to the pottery. This is referred to as transferware, and it was used on my bowl and saucer seen above. In many instances you can see a very subtle seam on the design, where the ends of the paper meet. Transferware techniques are still used today, so it's not the best indication of the age of a piece.

As you can see, I certainly learned quite a bit about British tea bowls! It has certainly given new fuel to my teaware collecting endeavors. For more on British tea history check out some of my older posts here and here. Is there a bit of tea history that you're eager to learn more about? Let me know what it is in the comments, and I will write a post all about it!