Reviews of Twining loose-leaf Irish Breakfast Tea and Numi's Chinese Breakfast (Organic Yunnan)
The old brown-shirted UPS man brought me two boxes today. If you have never shopped for tea on Amazon, let me tell you how it tends to go. You order tea in bulk. Bulk meaning by the pound or two. It says something like "Timmy's Sweet Black Assam Blend 4oz box" but what you get is six of those boxes. If you like tea, or if you like giving tea away, there you go. If you, however, occasionally drink tea when you feel like it, and maybe not even then, get thee to a Publix. I like tea—I'm not so keen on giving tea away to the uncouth plebians I call friends and family—and so I occasionally order tea from Amazon, but only occasionally. I warn you, it can get to you like a sickness. Next thing you know, you'll have about fifteen pounds of Numi organic blends. I speak from experience.
Back to my boxes. There was a kind of little box and a bigger box. The little box had a six-pack of Twinings Irish Breakfast Tea 100g cannisters. That's about a pound (yes, more by a couple of ounces, but let's just say a pound or half-kilo). The bigger box contained a full kilo of Numi's Chinese Breakfast Blend in two large black bags. The kind of bags that would have required questioning if I happened to be caught with them in backpack as I crossed state lines. I've had Twinings Irish-B before. Back when this blog was on blogspot and was called "Doug's Tea Blog", I occasionally called Irish Breakfast my favorite black tea. It might be more fair to say that it's my favorite workhorse tea, my go-to black. I have never had black tea from Yunnan, unless as a blended deal, though I have tried some of their green and white varieties. Those tend toward a fruity round note, so I had no idea how the black would hold up.
Let's first look at the loose-leaf Irish Breakfast. The official product page for Twining's Irish Breakfast describes it as "A strong, full-bodied black tea from the regions of Ceylon and Assam expertly blended with a hearty flavor and delightful aroma." That, by the way, is the magic mixture: Assam and Ceylon. You want the top floral notes of the Assam, with it's wide back of the tongue taste, to rub up against the bottom nutty character of the Ceylon, with its narrow tartness. The mixture tends to be a medium strength mixture (on their new box, Twining's list it as being 3 out of 5 leaves in flavor strength) that goes a litle bit of everywhere. It hits pretty much all the notes that black tea can hit, and so can taste just a wee bit different with every swallow, much less every glass. It can take milk just fine, thrives with honey, and works plain as long as you like a bitter afterbite. Not really bitter, but definitely bitter. Deal with that contradiction. Some have called it the "stout" of teas, and that's kind of true, if you are referring to a more medium stout. It has a good medium richness and a definite black tea chop. It is not overpowering, though, like a Lapsang (which is the only tea that I know of that Twinings lists as a 5 out of 5 flavor strength black tea).
In tea circles, there is always this big fight over loose-leaf versus tea-bags. Let me say two things in light of this blend. The loose-leaf is cut very fine. It actually looks like they pressed the leaves together (the Ceylon and Assam, I mean) and then crumbled them apart, much like some crumble tobaccos will do. My guess is, if you pick up a bunch of tea-bags of Irish Breakfast, and break them open, you will get the exact same thing. You save the taste of steeping paper (assuming that's a thing that actually happens) and some money. In this case, you can trust old Uncle Doug here and go either way. I like the ability to control my steeping more, not to mention the loose-leaf lends itself to blending. You end up saving something like half going for the loose, but once you factor in other things, like maybe you just want the bags; then I don't think you are going to lose any flavor.The website puts it at $4.50 roundabout per the hectogram. Amazon lists it for $26.68 per 6, so you save less than a dime per can. You can (ooo, pun) set up a food subscription on Amazon, which will save you something like an extra 15%, but at 6-per, you would have to drink at least 12 cans a year just to justify the lowest possible subscription. Our second tea, coming up, is a much different sort of thing. Looking at Numi's product page for Chinese Breakfast (Organic Yunnan), you are dealing with about $30 a pound (that only sounds expensive to you if you have no concept of how much tea is in a pound). On Amazon's page for it, you end up shaving off a twenty or so once you factor in the two-at-once deal. It also comes in tea-bag variety. Now, you can get 100 bags for the same price as a pound. Assuming Numi's bags are roughly the size of Twinings (I have no idea, I've never done Numi tea-bags before) then you are looking at about 2g per bag, or 200g for the "bulk" order, which comes out to be about double the cost. Numi is best known for their flowering teas, but it seems that they are known, next, for their loose. Go with loose, in this case.
As for the tea itself, well, let me explain something. We tea people are like wine people. We use words like "a hint of raspberry" and "like the cheek of a fresh spring rain" to describe things that taste like, you know, tea and wine. How boring would it be, though, to merely say "Well, it tastes like Shiraz, what else you want?" Bear with me. Numi's Yunnan (let's dispense with the Chinese Breakfast bit) has a triangular taste. At the base of the triangle, towards the back-middle of the tongue, you have hints of malt, a faint smoky flavor (very faint and not omnipresent), and a little maple. Then, it quickly sharpens to a sort of sour, high note on the front of the tongue. The high note is distracting enough that it almost detracts from the more rounded middle, but here's the good news: tea like this, you can play with. A weaker, quicker steep will taste different than a longer steep. Milk will take the sharpness out, sugar can bring the bottom up a little. What's more, unlike a lot of the Panyangs and Keemuns that you have to tip-toe around or lose the best parts of the flavor, this tea is willing to fight it out. Numi says it can go with food and I believe it. It is not quite like any tea (except maybe English Breakfast, which has a very similar shape on the tongue). It might lack a hook to bring back drinkers, but why this one seems to be unknown while stuff like Ceylon is sung from the rooftops, I have no idea.
For those curious, the official product description from Numi is mostly filled with that "new-tea-hobbyist" chatter that decorates tea boxes from Tazo to Mighty Leaf: "This noble tea is grown in the mist covered mountains of Yunnan province. What distinguishes this fine, organic black tea is its perfect sense of balance, exquisite tiger's eye color, and a lean vibrancy which makes it suitable at any time of day. Like a complex wine, it is the perfect tea for food, marrying well with a wide variety of dishes. It has a distant and hard to place floral quality, yet it leaves the mouth tasting as clean as spring water. And it energizes the body and mind more harmoniously than the best of coffees. We are proud to bring you this high grade leaf." I would drop the spring water bit, and floral isn't the world for it. More citrus than floral and more lingering than light. I'm not paid to write copy to sell tea to house-wives wanting a flavor of the Orient, though.
My final reviews are: Twinings loose-leaf Irish Breakfast Tea wins a strong Good from me with the note that it's best to keep a can around for the nights you need a little more oomph than many black teas give; and Numi Organic Yunna gets a weaker but still Good from me with the note that my review my change as I play with it more.
I am now something like 10 cups of tea into the night, and starting to feel a bit wiggy, so I will sign off with my usual. Drink well.
Si Vales, Valeo