But maybe tea isn't the unqualified ballroom gala I think it is. Is tea an institutionalized locus of formality, tradition and manners? Yes, for now, but as the practice of tea drinking grows out of its box of history and spills its tendrils out into the wider world of public consumption, touching different demographics, ages, nationalities and occasions, these new brews will come to be accepted as full fledged members of the tea club.
For today's review, and by eccentric brew, I am referring to Aroma Tea Shop's Milk Aroma Oolong. The full retreat from tea tradition is pretty obvious in the "Milk" part, and I don't think it is unwarranted. Milk pairs with a lot of foods to produce a delicious cooperative of flavors - milk and cookies, milk chocolate, malted milk balls, but tea? Milk tea? But wait! Do we not put milk with our black teas to produce a creamy, easy to drink blend? Why yes, we do - but check out the word that comes after "Milk": Oolong. I'd no sooner add milk to an Oolong than I would a green tea, or milk to a martini. It doesn't work, and not even the trampling, barbarian and uncouth hordes of American consumers have dared to revise green tea or oolong to suit the sugary, creamy and high-fat American diet which has stirred up a flurry of fat conscious journalism.
So what does it mean to be a Milk Oolong? Taken from Aroma Tea Shop's page -
"Being featured in Lucky Magazine, this top selling tea is taking the nation by storm! We were drowned in orders nationwide, having orders coming from New York, Dallas, and across to San Diego. This tea actually originated from Taiwan, where they took the tea leaves and steamed them with milk. After the steaming process, the tea is then oxidized under the sun. The result is the amazing taste that this tea produces. It's sweet, creamy, and so smooth. Don't miss out on this one!"
Milk Oolong, then, is a run-away popular drink with mass appeal, a light dose of hot dairy and the standard oxidation step. Sounds appealing, but I still feel like there's more information to be had. Where did it come from, who developed it and is it edging out other teas in the tea market?
Next I made a visit to TeaChat where the amateur brain trust of tea gathers in its mysterious, nightly consortiums to dictate the whims and whiles of the tea industry. I found clearer answers there.
To summarize, a proper Milk (alternatively called Silk) Oolong is produced when the growing tea leaves undergo swift, dramatic changes in weather conditions, especially sudden frosts. However, this seems to clash with Aroma Tea Shop's description, so I'm going to guess there are two methods. One is au naturale, while the other is artificial, probably in effort to lower costs and offer a respectable replacement. Until I try a "real" Milk Oolong then, I'll take my cues from Aroma Tea Shop's milk sprayed version, which, even if spliced together in a lab, still tastes pretty darn good.
Leaf & Liquor: The moss and olive green knotted furls of tea, like the facial protrutions of Peter Jackson's Ents in his cinematic version of the Lord of the Rings, look aged and creased, in tune with nature, like nuggets of forested essence. They are something one might find in a Miyazaki Hayao film, pulsing with a deep teal glow beneath a pile of shaded leaves, serendipitously discovered by a mistreated youth. That's saying quite a lot, just for a balled up leaf. Though serious in their appearance, the leaves belie something far more playful - Milk flavor. Unfurled these leaves show up in a range of lengths, some torn, pale green with ridged sides and a moderately healthy appearance. The liquor is a light straw colored soup, with a tinge of deep, dark seaweed green in the murkier depths of the gaiwan. Overall, nice color theme. Very Irish with the 40 shades of green.
Raw & Steeped Aroma: True to its namesake, the defining feature in the Milk Oolong is a lactose sweetness. It's mild mannered but very distinctive, fresh from the cereal bowl to the tea. Despite its unique sweetness and respectful intensity, the only aromatic quality is, singularly, this milk one. Which is okay, because we don't expect a slew of fancy fragrances and scents in a Milk Oolong. Or should we?
Flavor & Palate: After the 2 minute mark, the Aroma Tea Shop's Milk Oolong continues to have difficulty introducing itself to the tea drinker, the flavor straining against a short shrift in steeping. But at 3 minutes it's much more garrulous, giving off copious milk flavors. In fact, the flavors are a high fidelity copy of the aroma, presenting foremost a moderate, well tempered milk and lactose sweetness (which for some reason reminds me more of milk out of a cereal bowl than a glass) and a nice none-too-bitter pressed seaweed flavor to complement the sweetness. I see how the flavors could go terribly, terribly wrong with a geyser of milkiness beating back tea flavors who might try to squirm onto the palate, or the unwelcome addition of a weird kind of curdled milk or sour cream flavor furtively added into the flavor profile. But no such oddities exist, making this a jocular cup of milk sweetened tea. Aroma Tea Shop advertises that the leaves can be re-steeped a few times, but I found that much of the flavor had been stripped after the first brew. This correlates with the Milk Oolong's manufacture - a flavor spray, lost in the first hot rinse. Still, that first brew is quite satisfying, if not as a way to broaden one's palate experience, then as a peek into the newly stretched limits of tea experimentation.
Returning to the question of Oolong Milk's place in a highly stratified, rigid art of tea, I think that, no, a tea like this won't be able to get past the Shoji paper into the proper tea room; barred from entrance into the glamorous world of tea ceremonies and sessions. But as long as young drinkers are migrating to tea from soda or juice, or even coffee, the tea world will need to relax a bit and permit teas like the Milk Oolong, natural or not, to co-exist alongside the oligarchs of the tea world. We might make Milk Oolong an entry point to other less welcoming teas, or maybe somebody will find Milk Oolong to be their only tea of choice. Fine, but at least they're taking the first step - loose leaf, a welcome step in the movement to advance tea.