Purple Tea

Solomon’s Purple White Seal of Approval

Whenever I go on impromptu tea quests, they’re usually solo. When they’re not, they’re usually my idea. This particular jaunt was not only not my idea but one triggered by a blog response. A week or so prior, I posted a bit of tea meta-fiction surrounding my tasting notes of Korean teas from Hankook. A fellow writer/editor friend – whom I’ll refer to as “K” – chimed in with a simple question.

“What are your thoughts on Korean seal tea?” she asked.

I stupidly replied with, “Are you referring to Solomon’s seal tea or…actual seal (lol)? The former is an actual Korean tisane, but I’ve never had it.”

Truth is, I actually had to look it up. Someone outside my usual tea circles had stumped me with a tisane I hadn’t heard of. Oddly enough, though, I was familiar with the Solomon’s seal plant. I learned of it when I did some cursory research on the “Seal of Solomon”, a symbol used often in anime for summoning demons.

In the biblical pseudographical text known as the Testament of Solomon, King Solomon (son of David) was given a ring by the archangel Michael. It was in the shape of a circumscribed hexagram and possessed the seal of God. The ring itself was known as the Seal of Solomon. The circled, six-pointed star has often been used in popular media as a demonic or magical summoning tool.

I have no clue how, but the name “Solomon’s seal” was also ascribed to a genus of plants called Polygonatum. The root of the P. sibiricum varietal – native to East Asia – was utilized in the herbal tisane, dubbed dungulle by Koreans. Many health properties are associated with the herb, but most are topical.

A week later, I met up with K and we journeyed to H Mart – a local Korean grocery store I mentioned in passing. I had only been there once or twice to pick up some Korean jarred “tea” for various experiments. Whether or not we would find the mysterious Solomon’s seal tisane was questionable.

We marveled at the various herbal infusions on hand in the tea aisle. Corn tea, peanut tea, pimple te-…Wait…pimple solution tea? There was actually a pimple-specific herbal infusion on display. Both of us had to snap a photo of the absurdity.

Not too long after that, K located her prey. It actually did exist – a 20ct. box of the stuff from some company called Dong Suh. I was so intrigued by it that I had to buy some for myself.

After that outing, I dropped K downtown so that I could notch off the second leg of my little tea quest. This was not on anyone’s suggestion, rather one made purely by accident. The day prior, I arrived downtown far too early for a wedding. I had three hours to kill, and decided to burn two of those at The TeaZone & Camellia Lounge.

My original “plan” had been to simply sustain myself with a bagel and decaf Earl Grey, but my dumbass perused the menu further. The moment I opened that menu, I knew I was doomed. At the top of the “White Tea” section was something I’d heard mention of but never thought I’d see. Kenyan Purple Silver Needle – the white tea version of the “Purple” varietal I had tried so long ago.

Damn it, I thought to myself.

I tried to pry a sample of the stuff from the barista, but he politely refused. I even dropped my “blog” as an excuse. That didn’t work, either. (Truthfully, it never seems to work.)

The day after – once I dropped K off – I was only a block away from TeaZone. I had no other excuse to resist my poor impulse control. I picked up an ounce.

I brewed both that night. Results:

Kenyan Purple Silver Needle White Tea

The leaves looked very much like Bai Hao Yinzhen, only smaller. Unlike the Kenyan White Whisper, the rolled leaves were nowhere near as plump or downy-firred. In appearance, it resembled a Rwandan white I tried, only lighter in color. It also bore a striking resemblance to some Ceylon Silver Tips I’d come across. As for the aroma, it was herbaceous, fresh, mildly minty with shades of unsweetened pomegranate.

The liquor brewed to a vibrant yellow, which is the minimum expectation of a good white (in my opinion). The aroma was all melons and leafy herbs – nuanced but nowhere near vegetal. Taste-wise, it could go toe-to-toe with even the most high-profile of Ceylon whites. Premium Yinzhen would give it a run for its money, but it would at least put forth a strong case. It almost tied with White Whisper in subtle excellence.

Korean Solomon’s Seal

I had to rely upon a tea bag, so the contents of it weren’t going to be the most visually striking. They were fannings; I could tell. There was an aroma, however – a roasty, nutty scent that reminded me a lot of dandelion root and/or chicory.

The liquor brewed rusted amber, pretty typical of a hearty root-based tisane. What surprised me was how closely it mimicked the aroma of…Frosted Mini-Wheats(?!). Yes, even the inherent sweetness. It’s not every day that I drink a tisane at night that smells like a breakfast cereal. The flavor deviated only slightly from the olfactory comparison, imparting a sensation similar to barley and/or buckwheat. It flirted with genmai territory but thankfully withdrew, keeping well with the realm of “good”. In short, I approved.

It had been awhile since I was caught by surprise by someone else’s tea leanings. Good to know that I can be put off my guard like that. Proof that my snobby armor can still be dented rather easily.

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Monday, September 10th, 2012 Steep Stories 1 Comment

Four-Eyed No-Horned Flightless Purple Tea Drinker

Tea is a major cash crop in Kenya. Some of that is owed to Lipton. Thanks to Big L – and others like it – the entire country could be looked upon as one big tea garden dotted with a few cities and wildlife preserves. Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but – truthfully – Kenya produces a lot of tea. Unfortunately, most of it shows up in cheap-o blends for mass consumption.

Lately, though, there’s been a push to highlight the single estate offerings Kenya provides. Almost as if the country collectively said, “Hey! Over here! There’s more to us than Lipton!” I can proudly say I’ve tried three or four – a Kenyan white matcha (bizarre but beautiful), a whole leaf black (meh), and an English Breakfast variant (tres yum). But the real stand out – at least in the last year or so – has been the development of a new leaf cultivar dubbed “Purple Tea”.

Photo by the Tea Research of Kenya

Photo by the Tea Research of Kenya

The new clonal strain – dubbed TRFK 306/1 – was developed for its health properties as well as its potential resistance to pests. Its most noteworthy molecular component is a flavonoid called anthocyanin – the component directly responsible for giving the leaf its purplish hue. Anthocyanin was purported to be an antioxidant powerhouse (a topic still debated), but the actual food value was questionable. By itself, the flavonoid was considered odorless and flavorless.

Science-y talk aside, I was hooked on sipping the damn leaf six months ago. It was instantly added to my “Tea WANT!” list. Problem was no one carried it. Part of that was its recent introduction. Most tea vendors weren’t aware of it until the World Tea Expo this year. Some that I talked to that were intrigued by it chose not to pick it up. Of all the ones I encountered, there were only two: The Royal Tea of Kenya (the parent group providing it, a wholesaler) and Butiki Teas. I chose to go through the latter in acquiring it. Would it taste good? Hell, I’d be the judge of that.

The leaves – or rather, leaf fragments – had the appearance of black tea fannings. They weren’t quite CTC-cut small, but were definitely flirting with the granular grade. There wasn’t much of a purple sheen to them, not that I was expecting one. In fact, I found it odd that there was a sharp contrast between green and black, no in-betweens.  I figured these would be fully oxidized when I got ‘em. As for scent, I was reminded of sweetened trail mix and Japanese (or Guatamalan)-grown black tea – floral, somewhat dry, and lightly sweet.

Brewing instructions called for a ½ teaspoon of leaves in 8oz. of 160F water infused for three-to-five minutes. That was as sencha-like an approach as I’d ever heard of. Those instructions came from the Royal Tea of Kenya page itself, but I was in the mood to experiment. Heck, Butiki’s site encouraged experiment. So, I decided to try three different infusions – one at the recommended 160F, one at 180F, and one at boiling. All at the three-minute mark, save for the last one where I’d do the full five.

First try (160F, three minutes): The liquor brewed up clear with a tinged droplet of green giving a slight impression of “tea”. The aroma had a roasted nutty impression, again supporting the sencha comparison. That was dispelled on taste when I was greeted with a grape front, a creamy-textured top note and a faintly vegetal finish. It had a lot in common with a Mao Jian.

Second try (180F, three minutes): The hotter temp yielded a pale, foggy amber brew reminiscent of steeped nettle leaf or guayusa. The aroma was sweet and almond-like with a trail of artichoke. As for the flavor, this was a tough one to discern. The front was fruit sweet and crescendoed on an even greater grape note than the prior attempt. Whereas the trail-off had none of the former’s vegetal lean; the nearest comparison I could find would be a Taiwanese (Formosa) oolong. Not surprising since this was an oolong-ish approach.

Last try (boiled to awesomeness, five minutes of EXTREME!): The liquor took on a bronze-ish lean for this last bit o’ crazy. Oddly enough, it was difficult to pinpoint an exact aroma, though. The only word that came to mind was, “TOAST!” But maybe that was because I was hungry. Butiki was right that the brew took on a bit more astringency with the more brazen temp, but I didn’t find it off-putting.  The foretaste possessed a roasted fruit feeling on tongue-down, which transitioned in the weirdest of ways.

Usually, when I sense the…uh…”movement” of flavor from one note to the next, it’s a subtle feeling – not so, here. There was a faint echo of – and I know this sounds weird – cream-covered strawberries on interim, like I was riding a yogurtine go-cart from one taster note to the next. This alternated from roastiness…to “yogurt-cart”…to fruit…to “yogurt-cart” again …to finish. Unorthodox? Just a tad. But obviously my favorite of the three infusions.

In closing, I have no clue if this would make me run as fast as Kenyans – or even get me out of my chair – but what it did do was deliver on taste. At the end of the day, when all the health benefits and science-y technobabble’s been spouted, that’s all you need. Butiki’s founder also mentioned in passing that there existed a white tea version of this experimental leaf.

And I’ll be the first in line to guinea pig for it.

To purchase Butiki Teas Purple Tea of Kenya, go HERE.

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Wednesday, November 9th, 2011 Steep Stories 2 Comments

I work for tea money.

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