Palatable Sweetness in Teas

by Lydia Kung

The popularity of jasmine tea, whether encountered in a restaurant, a boba shop, or as a carefully brewed cup, is attributable to the familiar and welcoming scent of the natural flower. Most other teas, however, must rely on intrinsic properties in the leaf to win over converts, without reliance on any added ingredients, natural or otherwise.

In foods, we have come to recognize umami in certain foods, beyond sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. The comparable term in Chinese is 鲜 hsien. (The character on the left is fish; the one on the right is lamb. When used with the word for “new,” the two words mean “fresh.”) Much of Cantonese cooking, with its light-handed touch with sauces, is intended to let the natural umami quality of ingredients shine.

In recent tastings, as more black and oolong teas come our way as we move towards fall, we find ourselves using the term “sweet” in our comments, but not in a sugary sense.

The Chinese word for “sweet” is tian 甜.

This is the term used to describe most desserts or beverages to which sugar or other sweetening agents have been added.

Yet there is another term that also conveys sweetness, of a more natural sort, gan甘.

(One example is licorice root, which as a powder is added to Ginseng Oolong to counter the slight bitterness of ginseng.)

When we learn that the word for “tongue” is 舌,

then we see how the more often used word for “tian”/sweet is a combination of the characters for tongue and for “gan”/sweet.

In the tea context, gan is frequently prefaced by the word “return,” to describe the finish, the subtle sweetness that lingers after swallowing.

With teas that yield a fine arc from first sip to finish, the continuing, palpable sweetness is part of the pleasure. Not surprisingly (and perhaps intuitively), the teas that display this feature are mostly oolongs and black teas. With the minimal processing that green teas undergo, there probably wasn’t enough done to coax much from the leaf. With the bruising of the leaves to initiate oxidation, however, components that do offer sweetness get to rise to the surface, so to speak.

The Single Trunk oolong and black teas are the first group that comes to mind in this regard. The lingering note of dried fruit (lichees, longan, stone fruits) is easy to pick up. Some Ti Kuan Yins have a fruity aspect. What these teas have in common is that they tend to be the medium roast teas, not the lightly oxidized ones. The name bestowed on White Peach Single Trunk oolong makes good sense with the first sip.

As we move along the spectrum towards more oxidized teas, the mellower, more deeply flavored black teas show hints of this subtle sweet quality –and one that returns to the palate. The Golden Monkey Black teas (all price levels just arrived) and other gold tipped teas are prime examples. Keemun is distinctive in its own way, but I don’t think of gan as its most appealing feature. In contrast, a new black tea, Gold Silk, impressed immediately with its very prominent dried lichee finish.

Then, of course, natural honey notes are the hallmark of a Taiwan trio: Honey Oolong, Emperor’s Choice, and Fern Stream Oolong.

Even some Puerhs have this quality – – teas that have been softened by four to five years, with the earthy component subsiding and giving way instead to a malty, almost honey-like finish.

A while ago I mentioned a plum tasting black tea that was recently developed from the Meizhan cultivar, a plant that had long been used only to produce oolongs. To me, the black tea is much more interesting than the original oolong, displaying not just plum-y notes but a long, sweet finish. (I have seen this retailing for over $100 for 2 ounces.)

Incidentally, as a sign of what is trending in Fujian in response to the domestic market, I recently tasted a White tea made from this Meizhan cultivar, shown at left:

I have to admit it was the cultivar’s name that piqued my interest. Had I not known the pedigree, I probably would not have even tasted it a second time. First impressions: an odd tasting sort of oolong; made us think of the somewhat oxidized GongMei White; what was the processing method used to achieve the darker dry leaf appearance?

In a similar vein, we recently received a Yellow Dragonwell – a tea made as a yellow one rather than the traditional green tea. Again, had the word “yellow tea” not been on the label, we could not have easily identified it as belonging in the yellow category. (Yellow Dragonwell shown at right:)

Using one cultivar and converting the tea into a non-traditional one sometimes produces delicious results. The affinity is evident and easy to pick up, making each twosome a wonderful pairing. One example is a Single Trunk Oolong and a Single Trunk Black. A more esoteric example is a DanGui Oolong and a DanGui Black, or an Gold Kuan YIn Oolong and a Gold Kuan Yin Black, and here the story is more complex because both are themselves hybrids. But as the Meizhan White and Yellow Dragonwell show, the experiment, purposed sometimes in response to market interest, does not guarantee a wonderful new result.

We look forward to the autumn harvests and wish you a bountiful season as well.