Monday, January 28, 2008

Review: Aroma Tea Shop's Blue People Oolong

Every tea blogger hopes that, one day, their lectures on tea, typed and published out in the nether regions of the internet, will earn them praise, accolades, and above all, free tea. Usually this only comes with extensive experience and a keen sense of style. The tea blogger evolves from a few, shy sentences per tea review to explosions of texts centered around some completely irrelevant tea minutiae. And, at the culmination of the tea blogger's (or author's) career they turn that explosion of text into art - a masterpiece of prose and poetry that can evoke real emotion. Emotional tea. That's hard to write. I know only of one person who can do it - James Norwood Pratt, and he not yet descended to the realm of blogging from his high, lofty throne made of tea leaves and dreams.

The rest of our lot are confined to the spacious prison of blogging, slowly following the above mentioned path to greater riches and prestige. I am proud to announce, then, that I have recieved my first offer to sample a tea, provided by the company at no charge! It's like adolescence - marginal to everyone uninvolved but tremendously emotional for the afflicted individual. And I've been afflicted with free tea.

The lucky volunteers were the fine folks at Aroma Tea Shop. Curt correspondence with someone affiliated with the San Francisco based store yielded an offer of a couple of samples, for review's sake. As a struggling not-quite-graduate-student-yet, I was more than happy to take anything they might have me try. And now, without further clamoring over free consumables, my review.

  • First Infusion: 1 Tablespoon of of tea in 11.5oz of freshly boiled water for a 2.5 minute covered steep.
  • Second Infusion: Same leaf, 3 minutes.
  • Third Infusion: 3 minutes.

It's hard to predict what an Oolong will taste like, let alone one mired in herbs. So, as always, I turned to the Aroma Tea Shop's web page.

This is one of our top sellers! Being a new style tea from Taiwan, it is an Oolong tea that is fermented with mint and liquorice root. The result creates an amazing sweet front taste and a long and lingering intense aftertaste. It has been described as being like a "party in your mouth!" The appearance of the tea looks like little blueish pebbles, creating the name "Blue People".

I'd hesitate to call any unmodified tea a "party in my mouth". But I'll start by giving the Blue People Oolong the benefit of the doubt. It does bring an untested mix of ingredients and flavors to the tea world, especially those flavors widely considered to be strong.

Liquor & Leaf: Albeit my experience with Oolong is very limited, I never expected to find a tea of such curious shape and color. It is not a leaf shape, per se, or not at the start. Rather, the Blue People Oolong looks like a cache of mossy green-teal pebbles. If you're into the imagery of Japanese Gardens you'll find this tea in its raw state to be quite stunning, as it carries the aesthetics of both stones and moss, or together like a mossy stone. The deep, verdant green of the Blue People Oolong is mesmerizing, and shows a fine dusty texture to it that supports the illusion of a mossy stone. I wonder, briefly, if this powdery surface is artificial flavoring in lieu of a genuine fermentation with mint and licorice root. Sadly, my tea tasting abilities are too limited and would be unable able to tell anyway.


After a 2.5 minute infusion, the pebbles refuse to open, though they have begun to loosen. They are, at this point, simply "peeking" out from beneath their crumpled and folded exoskeletons. It is only at the 3 minute mark that I can retrieve full, lush leaves. They are short and squatty, with the same dark forest green verdancy seen at the beginning, but mostly whole leaf nonetheless.

The liquor's color varied wildly between brews. After the first infusion the tea had taken on a fairly clear, light wood shaving brown color. Gentle, placid, it looked perhaps more like a white tea than an oolong. This changed after the second infusion, likely due an opening of the leaves and a more intense steeping. Whatever the cause, the liquor turns a much deeper brown than before, almost as if it had been burned or scalded, but retains the same clarity as before.

Raw & Steeped Aroma: The raw aroma is strong despite the tea's still dessicated state. I imagine this has much to do with the licorice and mint. Indeed, an initial whiff catches the viscous sweets of licorice, a cool breeze of mint and a sweet base of graham cracker.


The more subtle aromas come out only after the first infusion. There the licorice has bedizened itself in layers of sugar, becoming more of a candy than a root. It is accompanied by the same solid base of graham cracker, as well as a strange but not unwelcome note of chocolate syrup. Sweet, dark, yet chalky. A dash of nutmeg tops off the collage of sensuous tastes, wrapping the whole sweet and unguent bundle together like a bow. The second infusion brings the same aroma, with a slight increase in astringency.

Flavor & Palate: At first sip, one might be inclined to think that a terrible trick has been played. After all that gazing and sniffing, and after processing many a thick and syrupy smell, the Blue People Oolong begins its trip down your gullet imperceptibly. In those opening seconds there is little flavor to speak of. The palate has changed little, too, keeping the consistency of the water used in the decoction. However, a moment later and the familiar graham cracker notes come back and do their work on the tongue, masoning a flavor base. The graham is followed by a sticky glue of licoricie. This sprinting licorice rapidly advances on the tongue, clinging desperately to each taste bud it passes, grasping it with its licorice talons. After this initial, blitzkrieg wave of licorice fizzles away there is left only a gripping sweetness which I have tasted once before; Kellogg's Fruit Loops. The sugary aftertase dupliactes the white frosting found on sugar cereals, most dominant on my childhood favorite Fruit Loops. It doesn't fit very well in the grand scheme of Blue People Oolong, but makes a decent counterpoint to the adhesive licorice flavors.


The palate seems entirely unchanged, but this isn't necessarily bad. If it had become any thicker, the tea would have become almost too difficult to choke down, what with the combination of syrupy flavors and a syrupy texture.

The second infusion brings back the anterior-throat coating properties along with a welcome shake of spiciness. As the tea cools this velco-licorice becomes stronger and, with layers upon layers built up at the top of the esophagus (or behind the tonsuls) becomes overwhelming.

The package claims that the Blue People Oolong can be infused from 4 to 6 times. Personally, I found 3 infusions to be the maximum. At the third infusion most of the defining mint and licorice elements have deteriorated, leaving a vestigial toasted grain flavor. The aroma has likewise been depleted, itself leaving behind a more generic medium-bodied oolong scent. Is the tea's untimely expiration because I've stripped the tea leaves of a flavor coating that may or may not be there, or have I simply put the tea through the wringer one too many times? It is hard to say, and an inquiry e-mail is in order, but for now I'll assume the latter.

Somewhere on that tiny island of Formosa, a bored apprentice tea master was punching on his cell-phone while mucking around with ingredients, accidentally spilling a pot of herbs into the oolong brew in front of him. Apparently this suited his tastes, as well as everyone else's. Maybe this is the pop-culture side of tea: the tried-and-true traditional Oolong with a wallop of mint and licorice, making it T TO DA XTREME. For me, it tastes like just another licorice tea (Yogi Egyptian Licorice anybody?) with the added Oolong twist. This makes it superior to most store bought brands, but invalidates the subtleness that I find so charming in Oolong teas. It is hard to reconcile that with a desire to see a creativity on the part tea producers. I should say that this tea is a well received effort, but could stand improvement and better integration between flavors. Yes, I think that's level enough.


Space Samurai said...

Thanks for the awesome review; you do have a way with words, and I loved your mossy-stone description of the tea.

As I recall, this tea was essentially lan gui ren, a tea I keep seeing pop up, sometimes under different names such as this. I think I like it more than I like the taste.

Congratulations on your first free tea, may you have many more. In fact, check out ITD for another offer.

Blonde American Girl said...

I am beginning to suspect that the Blue People they sell to the masses is of inferior quality to the kind they give during the on-site tea tastings at the store. It was wonderful at the store, but all at-home attempts in preparation yielded the same disappointing results as you describe.

Callipygian said...

I just stumbled upon your review after discovering Blue People tea at the Vital Tea Leaf tea bar in San Francisco Chinatown. (highly recommended)

First, I have to compliment you on your writing style, your descriptions of the flavors, sweetness, and mouth feel are excellent and very accurate.

I am a big fan of this particular tea, very much enjoying the way each sip has a beginning, middle, and end, similar to a good red wine.

In trying to match the experience of the tea-room at home, I've had pretty good success following the instructions of their brewmaster. They instructed us to steep the tea for 10 to 15 seconds, which is shorter than I've ever heard of or read about. I find this works very well, using about a tablespoon of tea and less than 1 cup of water per steeping. Swirling the tea around in the pot ensures that the flavor is released and the leaves open fully. This short brewing time gives an excellent bright flavor with no bitterness. I can also often get 6 or 7 steepings with the same leaves using this method.

Thanks also to Space Samurai's comment about Lan Gui Ren. I'm looking forward trying other variants of this awesome tea.

Anonymous said...

I tried this tea too and loved it. Strangely, the same tea (with the same sweet aftertaste and mossy pre-brew leaf appearance) also called "Blue People" sold at a nearby shop in China Town (at Vital Tealeaf) purports to be an oolong made with *ginseng*. So, I don't know what's really going on with this tea. Something is fishy.

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