Sunday, February 12, 2012

Top 5 Most Unusual / Interesting Black Teas I've Tried

This top 5 post focuses on unusual black teas, black teas that have something novel, exciting, and different about them.

One of the reasons behind this post is that I sometimes read and hear the idea, expressed by enthusiasts of Chinese and/or Japanese teas, that the most interesting teas are green, oolong, Pu-erh, and white teas, and that black teas are somehow not as interesting, or do not represent a fully rich, deep, or complex tradition worthy of the same sort of focus or interest as the other types of teas. While I find it hard to argue with some points (like the complexity of Pu-erh), I think that some tea enthusiasts dismiss black tea without ever seeing what it can offer. People have different tastes, and I think it is completely legitimate to prefer these other types of tea, but I think that if you seek out interesting black teas and approach them with an open mind, you will find they offer a lot of diversity.

There is a difference between a tea that I consider interesting and a tea that I consider good. This list is not a collection of favorites. When comparing ratings on RateTea, I ranked a number of black teas higher than some of these, but for this list, I did not consider the teas with what I would call a "classic" profile of a well-established style, like a classic Assam, Darjeeling, or Keemun. These are the teas that defied classification, had surprising complexities in their aroma, and were totally unlike anything I had tried before:

  • Putharjhora Estate FTGFOP1 Tippy/Cl First Flush Organic from Upton Tea - From the Dooars region of India, this tea stands out as the most interesting black tea I have ever sampled. I experimented with brewing it extensively, and I found that multiple infusions were required to fully experience it and bring out its diverse characters. This tea had elements in common with Darjeeling and Assam teas, and exhibited nuances of wintergreen, fruit, malt, celery, citrus, and caramel in the different infusions. One thing that really struck me about this tea was its resemblance to sheng Pu-erh and high-grown green oolongs in later infusions. The flavor and mouthfeel were also very complex, with peppery sensations like a Yunnan dian hong, and a significant savory or umami presence as well.

  • Royal Tajiri Tea from Royal Tea of Kenya - This is the only black tea so far that I gave a perfect score on RateTea. It has a fresh, vegetal quality I usually only encounter in Darjeelings, yet is stronger overall. Aroma has suggestions of asparagus, honey, malt, muscatel, and wintergreen. Eminently pleasing to drink!

  • Livingstonia Estate GFBOP from Upton Tea - A Tanzanian orthodox tea, also with wintergreen in the aroma, and rice, malt, and floral tones. The floral tones are reminiscent of Queen Anne's Lace, a flower with a distinctive aroma that I have not before noticed in tea. Very unlike other teas I've tried, but also very balanced and enjoyable.

  • Kuwapani Estate Makalu Tippy Spl from Upton Tea - This tea from Nepal, which Upton described to be Oolong-like, I found to be vaguely reminiscent of Panyang Congou. The aroma has tones of sandalwood, smoke, wintergreen, cocoa, and muscatel. This tea had a dry, peppery finish as well.

  • Singalila Estate SFTGFOP1 from Upton Tea - This tea, which I did not enjoy quite as much as the others, but still liked, was just outright bizarre. It was from a very new tea garden in Nepal; Upton described it as being oolong-like. The dry leaf appeared Darjeeling-like, but upon brewing, the aroma had a burnt quality, suggestive of candle wax. Nuances in the aroma included peppermint, vanilla, and chocolate, with hints of muscatel grape, smoke, and dust. This may not have been my favorite tea on this list but it certainly is up there among the most interesting black teas I've sampled.

One interesting observation I made after compiling this list was the fact that four of these teas exhibited wintergreen in the aroma. This signals the presence of methyl salicylate, which I explain in my post on wintergreen tones in black tea. While I haven't liked all teas exhibiting strong wintergreen tones, I think that in general, this quality tends to correlate pretty strongly with other qualities that I like in black tea.

What do you think?

What are some of the most interesting or unusual black teas that you've tried? What companies other than Upton Tea Imports would you like to recommend for these sorts of teas? Have you tried any of these teas?


  1. Mr Alex, I take exception to the review of the Nepalese Singalila. Aroma of burnt candle wax? Hints of dusty peppermint?
    I tasted and smelled nothing of those things. Hands down it's my favorite Nepalese teas, and as a Nepalese one of my favorite teas allround. I noticed you didn't detect any light fruitiness at all. I do think it had sweet notes, but I didn't think chocolate. Or Vanilla. A pity I am all out of it, then maybe I could describe it better. Not that I like reviewing teas because I don't review them with the "accepted" terms.

    I've also had Putharjhora which I enjoy a lot, although not enough to call a favorite. I can maybe agree with a touch of light peppery. I don't think it's as complex as some of the other Darjeelings I had last year. I find it more "solid" by comparison. I don't recall a "wintergreen" aroma. It wouldn't have occurred to me. Perhaps I don't understand your description. I will read your post.

    The most interesting black teas (not Puerh) I have tried include Nepalese, not just Singalila, and various Yunnans I also had a few second flush Darjeelings last year which had been picked only three weeks prior to my pouring them into my cup. The freshness was amazing. I don't remember offhand which estates, I'd have to look that up. I found that the tender age of these tea leaves dramatically impacted the flavors I experienced. Same for some young Yunnan I bought.

    Thanks - your reviews are as always a pleasure to read.

  2. I really like hearing contrasting reviews. It's fascinating how different people experience the same tea differently. For yet another contrast, my parents have a batch of the Singalia tea you and I have both sampled, and while they like it a lot, they did not find it particularly outstanding or unusual.

    Honestly though? I tire rather quickly of "accepted" or "standardized" terminology for reviewing things. Why? Different people have different palates. If I don't eat a certain food or use a certain spice, making an analogy to it is meaningless to me. I like to use aromas that are familiar to me.

    Wintegreen is a great example. As a kid, I loved the wintergreen aroma...I loved it in candy, and I loved it in nature--it occurs in the wintergreen plant, as well as birch bark. I think tea tasters are not used to tasting the wintergreen aroma or using it to describe teas, but it's in there (sometimes very strongly) in some teas. I think I was awakened to this aroma by a tea from Uva, Sri Lanka, Upton's TC53: Uva Highlands Estate BOP, a tea which has unfortunately been permanently retired from their catalogue...this tea was so dominated by wintergreen that my first thought was to wonder if it had been flavored or mis-labelled.

    A lot of stuff is subjective too. People like to call Assams "malty". But a "malty" Assam does not really taste the same as a malt beverage like beer, or a malt milkshake, or malt candy. It has a certain similarity, but I'd imagine other people might find other ways to describe it.

    I think in general I like it when people break outside the bounds with their analogies and descriptions.

  3. need to try some black teas from Taiwan. They are typical grown in the Nantou region, near sun moon lake. They don't call them black tea--the Chinese translation is actually "red tea"; but they are black teas. These are the most enjoyable black teas I've ever drunk. They have all the creaminess and depth of Indian black teas which people usually associate with added sugar or cream--but it has these properties naturally, if you get a good one. Take a trip to Taiwan, sometime, Alex! You may not want to import from these various web companies much, after that.

    1. I've tried only one black tea from Taiwan, Rishi's Taiwan Ruby Black (Hong Yue). It was very interesting to me, and incidentally, it also exhibited this sort of wintergreen quality that I describe most of the teas in this post as having. But it is pricey ($15 / 30g) and it was not among my favorite teas. Interestingly, the tea I'm drinking at the moment, Harney and Sons Singbulli Darjeeling (DJ41), which is available either in bulk for $65/pound or for $9 for a 2 ounce tin, is among the favorite teas I've ever tried, and also exhibits this wintergreen quality! Michael Harney sent me that sample after reading this post, incidentally, so I think he may have noticed what qualities I like!


      At any rate, I'd be open to trying more black teas from Taiwan. I love Rishi, and often prefer their offerings to similar ones from other companies, but I've learned that their teas tend to be unusual and are not always the best indicators of what a "typical" example of a certain style of tea tastes like.

    2. Try this one:
      That's my go to tea shop back home. That was the first Taiwan Black tea I had and still a good one. Worth it. I am about to return to the USA, actually. Need to bring back some. Buying a lot right now..