Origin: Anhui, China
Type: Black Tea
Preparation: One teaspoon steeped in about eight ounces of boiling water for three minutes, sipped plain
Of the various tales surrounding the origin of Keemun tea, the most ubiquitous is also, perhaps, the most likely. A failed government bureaucrat set out to earn his fortune in the private sector (alright, that part is unlikely) with tea. He learned to make black tea in Fujian province and brought the skill back home to Anhui province, where only green tea had been made up to that point. Having quite the knack for his craft, out hero found a great degree of success, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Indeed, Keemun is often an ingredient in English Breakfast Tea, with those blends that do include it being generally more expensive. So successful is this tea, in fact, that it virtually always appears in those omnipresent lists of "Ten Famous China Teas" (no single list is definitive), even though it just came about less than a century and a half ago in a large country renowned since ancient times for dozens of different high-quality teas.
I set out to solve the riddle of its success. This was expressly not difficult - one cup, and the mystery vanished.
The dry leaves I picked up from McNulty's are the color of carob seeds. They are small, mostly straight, and twisted so tight that if I did not know any better I would assume that they were solid twigs instead of flat leaves rolled up. Their aroma is mainly vanilla, with some florals - sweet, sweet florals.
The brewed tea is of a caramel hue and has such visual texture that one would think that a few spoons of honey were already mixed in. The aroma is similar to that of the dry leaves. Some malt also appears, but sweet florals predominate. The taste, much like the sight, is enough to perpetuate the illusion that a plain cup of tea includes a great amount of honey. But now, though the sweetness is so strong, it is joined by other strong elements as well: acidity, tannins, briskness. There is a moderate degree of malt, at least enough to support the other notes, which is important because the body is medium - not weak or thin by any means, but still dwarfed by all of the flavor elements.
And yet this Keemun is not a grab-you-by-the-mouth-and-kick-you-around kind of beverage. It shows its strength but uses it gently. Next time I intent to brew it for only 2:45, and am confident that that will even it out the right amount. Three minutes just let the flavor get a little too big; we are left with gentle giants that occasionally bump shoulders by mistake. But they are still beautiful, playful, even thoughtful, with plenty of instinct for grace (if not quite plenty of room, in my particular cup). They are good for either waking up or calming down; drink it in the morning or afternoon.
On the way down, the Keemun settles back to sweet florals, releasing them with a full body at the back of the mouth. We are brought to the classic question that accompanies all finishes: is it goodbye or a forecast of hello? In this case, definitely both.