Tea Speaks

  • Re-Thinking Kombucha Flavoring, pt. 2: Pu-erh, Caviar of Teas

     

    In Part 1, I discussed the use of teas alone as a basic and powerful method of kombucha flavoring. Now, I'd like to take a look at one variety of tea that often gets overlooked in the West...

     

    Among the most alluring aspects of tea is its ability to elicit the sensation of feeling like you are somewhere else, in time or space. It can, beyond words, call forth a sort of sensory tableau, akin to déjà vu.

     

    The sensory details of each day's occurrences are connected by our experience, and accrue as a sort of personal encyclopedia. These details inform and even alter the manner with which we perceive our world and recall our personal history. And in the same way our minds build perceptions and experiences into memory, so can our minds retrieve memory (or illusion) from similar sensations and events. These can include cues such as sights, smells, sounds, feelings etc.

     

    Chinese pu-erh - kombucha flavoring Chinese pu-erh

    Not only is the flavor, body and aroma of a tea an immediate sensory experience, but it also can call forth recollection and imagination. Consider this as I talk about one of the most alluring, evocative and enigmatic of them all - pu-erh.

     

    Pu-Erh, Caviar of Teas

     

    When you drink a pu-erh, a (dry) fermented, aged, tea, a whole host of impressions can be stimulated in striking fashion. You might re-experience acute sensations you’ve had in the forest -  the smell of sweet notes of earth, tree bark and mushrooms - along with a little stimulation, possibly from the surprise nature of revelatory sensation, like a rush of adrenaline. These flavors sound strange to find in a tea - but pu-erhs are as complex and nuanced as a fine scotch whiskey - as a memory itself. And like caviar, pu-erhs are highly revered - but can also be polarizing.

     

    What’s this have to do with kombucha?

     

    In fermenting a fine tea, you’re supercharging its nutritive potential, contributing to its flavor, and of course making it additionally refreshing (with refrigeration and carbonation from a nice bottle conditioning). Pu-erhs are considered highly medicinal - supposedly helpful in weight loss, cholesterol reduction and cleansing the blood. At KBBK, we love to drink pu-erh kombucha to give us a great boost of energy, detoxify our bodies, and provide a very unique and conversational experience.

     

     Types of Pu-erh

     

    Imperial Pu-erh Imperial Pu-erh

    Pu-Er was the name of a Chinese town of antiquity which was known for being a center of commerce from which this type of tea was regularly exported. Of pu-erhs there are two distinct categories - the one photographed above is a "shu," or ripe pu-erh. Specially conditioned to recreate long-aged teas, it is "cooked" - tea handlers essentially compost the leaves in a very controlled environment. Tea producers began to utilize this process to attempt to satisfy the high demand for aged pu-erhs - the original, singular style of pu-erh - until the "cooking" process was developed in the late 20th century. While in cooking the result isn't exactly the same as you would achieve through aging, it creates, no less, a very distinct and unique product that isn't really so far off from "sheng" pu-erhs.

     

    Sheng pu-erh from 1992, kombucha flavoring Sheng pu-erh from 1992

    Sheng pu-erhs are considered raw - the tea is not composted or fermented quickly, but over time and through closely-guarded methods. This is a style of the old days, long pre-dating the Mongol invasion of China, and it is still considered an integral part of the culture. It is well known among enthusiasts that the best pu-erhs are consumed after decades of aging. The one pictured above has seen nearly a quarter of a century pass.

     

    In our experience, longer-aged sheng pu-erhs are much mellower and less astringent than are younger examples of the style (though still remaining enigmatic, startling, and delicious).

     

    Bamboo-aged pu-erh, pu-erh knife, and a pu-erh cake Bamboo-aged pu-erh, pu-erh knife, and a pu-erh cake

     

    Pu-erh Kombucha

     

    However, when we are brewing our pu-erh teas into kombucha, we need not worry about bitterness. This is due to the unique ability of the culture to eliminate the tannic bitterness you might notice in a tea before fermentation. So, out of a pu-erh kombucha you are left with a complex, highly medicinal and refreshing beverage, a giant and healthy SCOBY; not to mention a chance to step into a distant memory or illusion elicited by the tea's terroir, processing, and especially in the case of pu-erhs, age.

     

    Silver Bud Pu-Erh Silver Bud White Pu-Erh

    If this sounds enticing, you simply must taste for yourself. A great place to start exploring pu-erh kombucha is with our office favorite, the sheng Silver Bud White Pu-erh. While usually made from older leaves, this unique variety has been made with the buds of the tea tree. And while only aged for 11 years, you'll notice a distinct fruitiness in this tea that is strongly reminiscent of sweet prunes, tobacco and honeydew. For a convincing pu-erh brew, look no further, and remember - this is kombucha flavoring at its simplest and most effective. So, brew up some pu-erh kombucha, sip with your eyes closed, and see where the tea and your imagination can take you!

  • Alterna-tea-ves - Yerba Mate

    By Chris Strait

    It’s common practice today to associate all plant-based infusions with the word “tea,” leaving clarification to come from context. It is especially important, however, to delineate between the varieties of tea when speaking of kombucha brewing.

    mate_blog Yerba mate guampa alongside some yerba mate leaf

    Historically, the most common (and original) practice has been to use the evergreen Camellia sinensis (which is comprised of 3 main varieties I won’t explore now) in kombucha production. It’s responsible for the classics - teas like English breakfast, Earl Grey, Darjeeling, and Gunpowder green come immediately to mind. That is not to say, however, that the incredibly adaptable SCOBY is unable to grow from feeding upon certain herbal teas, some with homeopathic resonance, some with cultural lineage, some with both.

     

    Today I’d like to briefly explore yerba mate. A Holly-related tree grown predominantly in South American nations (Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil...), it was under cultivation prior to European contact and has maintained status as a daily staple for millions. In recent years, the popularity of mate has been spreading north, and it’s easy to understand why.

     

    The leaves of the yerba mate tree possess numerous benefits in health and practicality. It is, I’ll posit, a “comprehensive” stimulant; while providing modest amounts of caffeine, it also contains the stimulant alkaloids theobromine and theophylline, most commonly associated with cacao and coffee, respectively. What’s the result? Consistent stimulation without the jitters. This herb is downright powerful, without the almost requisite crash that comes from a coffee binge. It’s is a tea you can drink all day long - to no ill physical effect - while promoting clarity and balanced energy.

     

    Yerba mate’s health benefits are even more astounding. It’s useful to compare mate with green tea, its healthful counterpart among infused beverages. Mate is a great source for antioxidants like polyphenols, which are indicated to have immune-boosting and cell-strengthening properties. Paramount are the incredible number of minerals provided by the plant - potassium, calcium, manganese, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, zinc - check out your daily multivitamin, do any of these ring a bell? Let’s not forget the ever-touted importance of naturally occurring sources of vitamins - mate contains A, B1, B2, B3, B5, C, and E, to name a few. In addition, yerba mate is a fantastic source of amino acids, flavanols, chlorophyll and fatty acids.

     

    That’s enough to have me interested. But there’s even more to consider. While it’s not hard to find yerba mate in tea bags, doling out 3-5 grams per cup,  traditional measurement and consumption is something much less quantifiable. Enter the gourd, a hollowed-out calabash, that is methodically filled and shared communally. The gourd, or guampa, or mate, is filled 2/3 full, which amounts easily to 20+ grams of material (in my fire gourd). After tempering the herb with cool water, the gourd is continually refilled with hot (not boiling) water, and consumed until the tea is too weak to continue. This method allows for much more of the nutrients to be passed on into the infusion, and allows you to control your nutrient/stimulant intake. Ahh, the freedom of loose-leaf. Combine loose-leaf mate with your stuffy old French press and you’ve got an incredibly simple, quick source of vitality and stimulation.


    That’s a basic introduction to the world of the yerba mate. One more thing. You can steep it with room-temperature water. In under 10 minutes. What are you waiting for?

  • Re-Thinking Kombucha Flavoring

    By Chris Strait

    Since my introduction to the world of fermented tea 7 years ago, it seems as if the “standard operating procedure” has been inclined towards post-fermentation flavoring. This has yielded a myriad of incredibly complex and delicious drinks, for sure. The creativity involved in such conjuration is one of the most enjoyable aspects of brewing kombucha.



    tea_blog An array of fine loose-leaf teas alongside a gaiwan

    But just like in food, the beverage world benefits greatly from the observance of simplicity. Every pot of chili, korma, etc. has its antipode in an onion, in kale, in almonds, etc. - unadulterated, unprocessed, additive-free - you get the picture. The equivalent impulse to simplify, in the realm of kombucha, involves an examination of the unavoidable essentials - sugar and tea.


    While I have extensive experience in brewing with relatively “standard” teas (English breakfast, white, gunpowder green, even yerba mate), the effects of kombucha fermentation on fine teas is relatively uncharted territory for me. What happens when you ferment a Dragonwell green tea, a fine oolong of Phoenix Mountain, the fine buds of Silver Needle white tea, or a Pu-erh? What I’m beginning to discover is a world of complexity and flavor I’ve never experienced in kombucha. Tastes of passionfruit, pineapple, coconut, chocolate - all flavors I would have added post-fermentation - and more - are completely attainable with careful tea choice, steeping and fermentation.

     

    This is just the beginning of a long road, paved with SCOBYs, with new discoveries at every turn. In upcoming posts I’ll examine the varieties of teas, their connection with the land (contributing terroir), the important influence of human processing, and their “kombuchatization.”

     

    So, stay tuned, get some ‘buch brewing, and let’s explore. It’s going to be an exciting journey.

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