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?