|"Golden Needle Yunnan is a beautiful sight to see; a fluffy, downy, gently twisted mix of light and dark slender golden leaves. American Tea Room's Organic Yunnan Golden Needle is no exception."|
David was charming and very welcoming. With a lot of the area's populace off at the huge Halloween parade, it was a quiet afternoon and he gave us an extensive tour of the store. It's an attractive space, open and airy, and the wall are lined floor to ceiling with beautiful tea ware, pots, gift sets, and packages of loose teas of every sort—black, white, green, pu erh's, scented, flavored, tisanes. He spoke very knowledgeably of his wares and the business. He didn't drop any names, but his regular clientele includes not only humble tea reviewers, but Hollywood actors, directors, and Middle Eastern royalty.
One wall was filled with large canisters of loose tea and as we talked, he pulled down one after another, letting us look and sniff to our heart's content and offering me samples for review. David's favorites are the Japanese greens and we sampled an array of sweet, grassy varieties. When he learned that my personal passion is for Chinese Yunnan, he smiled and pulled down three more canisters. The first two were fragrant Yunnans, with nice black leaves mixed with golden tips. Then, with a flourish, he opened the third. You've probably seen movies in which the hero opens a treasure box of some sort and a golden glow appears, promising riches inside? It was kind of like that: Organic Yunnan Golden Needles. For those of you who aren't Yunnan fanatics, it's the highest form of the type. Needless to say, when he asked if I'd like a sample of that one, I quickly said yes. I hope I wasn't drooling on the counter.
ATR includes a brew instruction card with all their shipments, with general guidelines for "Black tea, Red tea, & Herbals," "White tea," and "Green tea." For my first cup I followed their suggestion of one heaping teaspoon in six ounces of 200F water for four minutes. However, the results were a bit thin. But when it comes to fine teas, one size does not fit all. I'd recently purchased a Golden Monkey Paw, which is very similar, which is brewed two tablespoons to eight ounces of water for two minutes. Tinkering a little, I arrived at two generous teaspoons to eight ounces of 208F for five minutes. Perfect. Those who don't like their tea strong could probably get by with a little less, or a shorter steep time, but I like my black tea to have some punch, and I also want to know if it will bolt and go bitter. With that established, on to the review.
Golden Needle Yunnan is a beautiful sight to see; a fluffy, downy, gently twisted mix of light and dark slender golden leaves. American Tea Room's Organic Yunnan Golden Needle is no exception. Dry, it smells pleasantly of sweet hay and tobacco. Infused as described above, it yields a medium copper-colored liquor with, unexpectedly, some sediment. (I brewed it in a small pot with a spiral filter, which does let more through that an fine mesh basket. While not really off putting, it was an unusual amount in my experience.) The fragrance is delightfully sweet, almost floral, with the strong notes of tobacco and leather that I expect from a good Yunnan. Many black teas fall down on fragrance, but not this one.
Inspecting the leaves in the pot, I found them a golden brown now, whole, about an inch long, very slender, and gently folded lengthwise. I really like seeing unbroken leaves, not only because it is generally a sign of good quality, but also because it feels like a connection to the source, the actual tea bush growing in some high altitude tea garden near the border of Tibet. But I digress.
The flavor is rich, bright, mouth filling, and complex: honey, tobacco, spice, bittersweet chocolate. The website also suggests "apple blossom" and "buttery baked yam." I wouldn’t argue. And even though I brewed it fairly strong, there's no bitterness whatsoever. One of the interesting contradictions of black tea is its pull, or astringency, which is at once mouth drying and refreshing. The pull is strong with this tea, a focal feature of the enjoyment. It makes me very much want a second cup. The aftertaste is long and spicy sweet. It lingers strongly on my tongue as I type between sips, together with a hint of the fragrance.
I don't really expect a second brew from most blacks, including Yunnans, but I thought I'd give it a shot anyway. I infused it for another five minutes and got a passable cup. The sweetness was mostly gone, the taste a bit flatter, but it was drinkable. Personally, I wouldn't bother, but I leave that to the individual.
The website refers to this as a "self drinker," a tea needing no milk or sugar. I'd add that it would be a crime to add them, and I say that as a person who loves a splash of half and half in my black tea. Or used to. The more I drink better quality teas, the less I want to adulterate them.
This is a really fine tea. The one thing I'd like for a tea at this price is provenance. Who grew it? What part of Yunnan is it from? When was it harvested? That being said, it's delicious, it's organic, it's the genuine article, and it's a very good representative example of the type.
I don't normally say much about price, but this one is very high. At $70 for a 3.5 oz packet that makes 25 first brew cups, that comes out to $2.80 per cup, $1.40 if you do a second infusion. High for tea, not so high compared to a latte grande. I leave it up to the buyer to decide if this is in their budget. Fortunately, American Tea Room now offers smaller packets and even sample sizes, so you can test drive a tea without making a major investment.
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