Monday, May 16, 2011

Wintergreen Tones in Black Tea

One of my favorite tea blog posts of all time is Sir William of the Leaf's review of 2006 Haiwan "Purple Leaf"; in which he is astounded by the pork- and bacon-like qualities evident in this Pu-erh cake.

When a person has tried many teas, and they sample a pure tea and encounter an unusual aroma, it often grabs their attention. Today this happened to me for the second time, which sparked me to write about it. The aroma in this case was wintergreen. The first tea I sampled which exhibited wintergreen tones in the aroma was Upton Tea Imports' TC53: Uva Highlands Estate BOP. The second tea, which I sampled today, also from Upton, was TK18: Livingstonia Estate GFBOP. Both of these teas stand out in that I have never even detected more than the faintest suggestion of wintergreen in any tea, which is interesting because wintergreen is an aroma that is relatively common in various plant sources, and is distinct and easily recognizable to me as it is one of my favorite smells or flavors.

What is wintergreen?

Several evergreen leafy plants bear the name wintergreen. The wintergreen that I know, Gaultheria procumbens, is an evergreen leafy plant that grows in heavily-shaded areas of forests, especially those with poor soil and heavy accumulation of needle litter from pine, hemlock, and other dense evergreen trees. The plant, which tends to grow along the ground, has tiny, starchy red berries, and tough, but strongly aromatic leaves.

This public domain photograph was taken by Mike Serfas; original on wikimedia commons.

There is a lesson about tea here as well. The evergreen nature of wintergreen, just like the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, is primarily an adaptation to the low nutrient levels: by holding onto its leaves for multiple years, this plant conserves nutrients in an environment where nitrogen in particular is in short supply. Recall that tea plants are able to grow wild in areas, such as exposed rocks high in the Wuyi mountains, where there are very low nutrient levels.

The distinctive wintergreen aroma is actually due to a single chemical, methyl salicylate, which according to Wikipedia makes up 98% of the essential oil of the wintergreen plant. This chemical occurs in numerous other plants as well, including the bark of birch trees, and is responsible for the commonalities in aroma between wintergreen tea and birch beer, as well as some of the medicinal effects of plants containing this chemical, which is closely related to salicylic acid, the chemical in willow bark that originally spawned the development of aspirin. Methyl salicylate is also responsible for the "spark-in-the-dark" phenomenon that can be observed when crunching wintergreen Life Savers in between your teeth. The chemical is toxic in high doses.

I did some digging and found that pure black tea naturally contains methyl salicylate. I found this absolutely fascinating. So it was not just all in my head!

More about the teas:

I must say, I absolutely love the Livingstonia Estate GFBOP. This tea is from Tanzania. Upton points out that most tea produced in Tanzania is CTC (Crush-Tear-Curl), mechanically processed tea, and this tea, using orthodox production methods, is rather unusual. I found this tea to be delightfully complex, strong, but balanced. Another interesting tone besides wintergreen that I detected in the aroma of this tea was Queen Anne's lace, a distinctive-scented wildflower which is actually the wild version of the domestic carrot. ( my review )

The Uva Highlands Estate BOP was a tea that I was less excited about. I found that tea to be rather tannic, and easily became too bitter and astringent if brewed for more than a couple minutes. Its aroma was less complex; the main distinguishing feature I noticed about this tea was the wintergreen tones in the aroma, which were stronger and more well-defined than the Tanzanian tea. This alone made the tea interesting and worth trying. ( My review )

Have you ever noticed wintergreen in the aroma of any black tea, or any tea for that matter? It's in there, at least, somewhere, in some black teas!

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