March 08, 2018

Tahmina Saffron Teas

A tea review to celebrate Women's History Month and International Women's Day! You can now enjoy variations on Afghanistan's prized tea, saffron tisane. Tahmina International offers three saffron-blended teas, and has recently added a spice line with pure saffron as the first item.

Before I tasted Tahmina Saffron Teas by Tahmina International, I watched the company's To Be Brave launch video. The cinematography and music are breathtaking. The video production highlights the gravitas of the company's mutli-facted mission: "to connect local farmers with international markets, employ Afghan women, and help develop industries that can be alternatives to the illicit drug economy." After watching the video, I knew I wanted to drink the saffron teas, and ask many questions.

Saffron crocuses in Khorsan, Iran by Vathlu via Wikimedia Commons
Before I share my tea notes, I'd like to provide a bit of botanical background. Some of you know that my other passion is trees. Saffron is not derived from trees, but it is harvested from a plant, the saffron crocus. A thread of saffron is a stigma from a crocus. Each crocus only produces three stigmas. The stigmas have to harvested by hand to maintain the integrity of this floral element. This aspect plus other harvesting requirements contribute to the high price that saffron often commands.

I selected the two of three teas, Saffron Chai and Saffron Rooibos teas. The third tea is Saffron Sencha. My favorite of the two teas I received is the Saffron Rooibos. It is anytime of day since it is a caffeine-free tisane. And more importantly, I enjoy the taste. The first infusion is thick and sweet. The second infusion yields a very warming liquor in which the ginger shines with a citrus note. This a comforting tea.

The Saffron Chai has a deep medicinal flavor and reminds me unfortunately of the molasses my mother would add to hot breakfast porridges.

Tahmina Saffron Teas are presented in biodegradable pyramid tea bags which are made in Seattle, Washington by Motovotano. The tea tins are also produced in the U.S. from recycled steel. Origins of the major ingredients are provided. Each of the three teas does include natural flavors. I asked about the farm-to-tea-bag chain so read the full interview below.

Interview with Tahmina International

In addition to sampling the teas, I conducted an interview via email with a company representative. I asked six questions (I had more), and am so grateful that they were answered so thoughtfully.

  • The Tahmina collective operates anonymously for safety reasons. What sparked and fuels your bravery given the political climate?

Life in Afghanistan is not as dangerous as most Westerners think, but living here has its fair share of risks. That risk is especially high for Afghans who work with foreigners. These Afghans historically have been targets for kidnapping for ransom, or they’ve been killed by extremist groups. At this point, the safety of these Afghans is more important than the public knowing the identities of our team members. If it’s this dangerous, why are we still here? Ultimately we have a deep confidence in the resilience of the Afghan people, and there are certain risks that we are willing to take if it means that we can see a better future for Afghanistan. Some of our team members grew up in or have parents who lived in impoverished, post-war societies that are now first-world countries. As individuals, we would not be where we are today if it was not for the international community willing to overcome certain dangers and believe in our future. We are confident that Afghanistan will be able to write a similar story of hope for its people.

  • You chose saffron because it is a prized tea with which to welcome guests in Afghanistan. Why did you choose to create blends (saffron +) versus offering a pure saffron tisane?

We’re actually launching pure saffron spice in a few weeks for all foodies and those interested in pure saffron tea! But we also decided to make tea blends because we realized that most Western consumers don’t know what saffron is, let alone how to use it. But everyone knows about chai and green tea, and many people already drink tea regularly. So we felt like saffron tea blends could almost be a “gateway product” to introducing people to saffron, and hopefully people will be inspired to explore more of saffron’s uses and benefits once they try our tea blends.

  • What are some daily/seasonal challenges of managing cultivation and harvest in conflict zones?

Fortunately, the region where our saffron grows is relatively safe in terms of terrorist attacks, so there are little daily risks for saffron cultivation. However, everyone knows that saffron is a lucrative industry, so many saffron farmers who have large fields are at risk of getting kidnapped for ransom. So during harvest season, farmers will hide their saffron under other crops when bringing them into the city, and most people who work in the saffron industry try to keep the saffron detail a secret. These challenges exist, but fortunately we’ve been able to see a stable and steady supply of saffron coming out of Afghanistan for the past few years. Many mentors and investors were concerned about the security of the supply chain when we first started. We’ve learned that there are challenges that come with a conflict zone, but with the right parameters taken running a sustainable business in Afghanistan is definitely possible.

  • Tahmina places an emphasis on girls and women. Can you describe some direct tangible effects of Tahmina's entry into the saffron market and from the company's 10% investment policy?

Tahmina has a pretty strong feminist voice. The name itself is from a common Persian girls’ name that means brave. Part of this emphasis probably comes from the fact that our founder is a woman and her friends and coworkers have so many deep experiences of women’s oppression in Afghanistan. The other part of it comes from the nature of the saffron industry, where more than 80% of the labor can be done by women. Last year, our local partner hired more than 170 women. We get so excited anytime we think about these women who are being empowered to earn money for their families when many of their peers are not even allowed to go to school or even leave their house. In terms of our donations, Tahmina has a policy of donating 10% of our revenue back into Afghanistan. We only launched at the end of October of last year, so we’re actually in the middle of organizing our first revenue. Most likely, this batch will be donated to a drug rehab center in Kabul, but you are welcome to follow up with us in a few months to confirm the final destination of the funds.

  • Related, what has been the pushback, if any, from Tahmina empowering girls and women through this economic development project?

So far, we’ve been lucky not to experience any hard pushback for women with Tahmina’s work in Afghanistan. We haven’t had the Taliban throwing acid in any of our girls’ faces, or the government outlawing women to work. But what is most difficult for empowering girls and women is the soft pushback of the culture. Deeply embedded in the minds of many conservative Afghans is the archaic belief that a woman is still considered property more than an actual human being. So that’s why even in the year 2018, some girls get married off when they’re 14, many wives are victims of domestic violence, and some men have up to four wives. As a foreigner, our founder usually experiences more respect and privileges than local woman, but there are still stories of sexual harassment in government offices, or simply not being taken seriously as a young, single woman in business. So the women who work in the saffron industry have already overcome a major challenge of getting permission to work from the male authority in their life. Our hope is that when more people see the power of their daughters and wives bringing income for their families, more women will be encouraged to have the freedom and independence to work.

  • In addition to saffron, are there other botanicals that Tahmina is considering for the purposes of tea making? Can you outline the farm to tea bag chain (where are the teas actually made before being packaged in the U.S.)?

Our saffron begins in the fields of western Afghanistan where it is planted, cultivated, and harvested during a small three week window. After it’s harvested, the spice is picked apart from the flower, dried, processed, and cleaned, and then shipped to Canada. We’ve partnered with a tea blending company in Vancouver called Blue Ocean Tea who then combines the saffron with our other tea ingredients. From Vancouver the blended tea is shipped to Seattle, where Motovotano, our co-packer, packages the tea into tea bags and the final canister product. Both Blue Ocean and Motovotano have been monumental in Tahmina’s initial product development and we’ve been so happy to work with them.

When we made the decision to go into saffron tea, we also researched Camellia sinensis cultivation in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, a few pilot projects from the past showed that the Afghan climate is not good for growing tea. Our team is researching some other teas and plants from other conflict zones, so if it shows promising we may be able to source other transformational products from other countries in the near future.

I recommend the Saffron Rooibos. You'll be purchasing a tasty tea with purpose.
Some of our team members grew up in or have parents who lived in impoverished, post-war societies that are now first-world countries. As individuals, we would not be where we are today if it was not for the international community willing to overcome certain dangers and believe in our future. We are confident that Afghanistan will be able to write a similar story of hope for its people.

I am grateful to Tahmina for answering my questions. I am inspired by their work and dedication.

Teas provided by Tahmina International for review purposes.

February 22, 2018

Global Tea Hut October 2017 Elevation Red Tea

I've been a fan of Global Tea Hut from a distance. From the blogs and social media accounts of other tea folks, I know of their in-depth articles about tea culture. These same sources rave about their teas. I did not hesitate to accept a a monthly box which included the October 2017 magazine issue, a tin of Elevation, a 2017 Old-Growth Sun Moon Lake black tea, and a clay tea pot scrub. Do you subscribe to Global Tea Hut?

I am keeping the October 2017 issue of the magazine! It's an excellent resource for a student of tea. Forty-five pages of the 62-page issue is devoted to sidehandle teapot history and ceremony. The feature follows the evolution in form and function of the sidehandle pot then provides a deep discussion of the sidehandle bowl tea ceremony including step-by-step instructions with clear photographs. The final section of the feature profiles two renowned artisans of the sidehandle pot -- Petr Novak and Luo Shi.

Now for the tea. I had many sessions with this tea, including "leaves in a bowl", and all the cups were delicious. I'm sharing details of my four-gram session here. I used 200F and poured to just cover the very long, dark leaves. The first infusion was very flavorful. The thick copper-colored liquor was has many notes: wood, leather, sweet. The second infusion was thicker. It tasted of sandalwood, leather, camphor, and a sweet spice. The third infusion had similar profile to the previous cup with the addition of a creamy texture. I noted that the was unmistakably a black tea at the fourth infusion. It was less complex than previous cups but it tasted like an accessible daily black tea. There was a slight bitterness in my rear cheeks. The fifth infusion (the third three-minute infusion) was tighter and drier. The flavors of wood, camphor, and spice were still present but the lush and creamy texture was no longer detectable. The sixth infusion was sweet and fruity this time. The liquor had a high, bright note. The final infusion was a 10-minute steep yielding a light-bodied liquor with a nutty sweetness. I transferred the leaves to a jar which I topped with room temperature water and refrigerated. Even after all of the many hot infusions, there was still flavor in the leaves.

This delicious red tea is perfect on its own, but if you like to eat a snack with your tea, I have two pairing recommendations for you. Peanut butter and jam on a thin brown rice cracker. A handful of roasted, unsalted almonds. If you try one or both, let me know what you think in the comments.

Magazine and tea provided by Global Tea Hut.

February 21, 2018

Teas Unique Jeju Island 1st Flush Black Tea

My favorite book of 2017 is Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. It's an exquisite biography of generations of a Korean family. I read the novel at the end of last year. I am halfway through White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Brandt, a novel also set in Korea about the separation of two sisters during the Japanese occupation of Korean during the mid-1940s. In between these two books, I drank Teas Unique Jeju Island 1st Flush Black Tea.

Teas Unique provides an impressive amount of detail about their teas on the tea packets. Here's what I know about the 1st Flush Black Tea. It is organic single estate, machine harvested, wilted / tossed / rolled / oxidized / red. The estate is on Mt. Halla in the Pyoseon District of Seogwipo City on Jeju Island. The harvest was around May 15, 2017 of first flush Camellia sinensis 'Fuushun' and 'Yabukita'. Do you know this much about every tea you drink?

I prepared the tea following the recommended 1 teaspoon for 2 minutes in 6 ounces of 195F water. The short, dark slightly twisted dry leaves smelled like dried cherries and wood. The first infusion was light amber colored and also had a light body and flavor. The second infusion, at 3m, was still light bodied but I could taste sweet and starchy notes. I wasn't expecting such a light profile from a black tea so I used more tea (1 tablespoon) in a second session. While the tea was still sweet and light-bodied, the starchy flavor was more pronounced. My notes indicate that I thought the starchy flavor was like eating cold roasted breadfruit or smelling starched linens. For my third session with the tea I used 5 grams in 200F water in a gaiwan. The first cup was immediately thicker and more flavorful. There were herb and cocoa notes. The third cup was "so drinkable" I forgot to take notes, but I do recall that it was thick and smooth. The fourth (and final) cup was slightly thinner but the herb note still dominated followed by a floral tail note.

I recommend more leaf and gaiwan preparation for this black tea. Don't expect this black tea to be like a hong cha. It is less and differently oxidized than the typical hong cha. It's properly classified as a balhyocha (noted on the tea pouch). MattCha's blog has a three-part series on Korean balhyocha.

Jeju Island 1st Flush Black Tea provided by Teas Unique.

February 20, 2018

Song Yi Sun Moon Lake Black Tea

Did you know that Oriental Beauty is not the only tea made from bug-bitten tea leaves? I didn't either until I was introduced to  Song Yi Sun Moon Lake Black Tea, a bug-bitten tea. World of Tea has a good article about the chemistry of bug-bitten teas.

Sun Moon Lake Black Tea does not look like Oriental Beauty. The black tea doesn't have the variegated coloring of the oolong. The long, dry leaves are uniformly dark and thick.

There are similarities in terms of aromatic and flavor characteristics, though. The fragrance of the Sun Moon Lake Black Tea leaves made me want to drink a lot of this tea. Sweet, baked, honey, woodsy. The infused leaves smelled strikingly similar to the dry tea. I had a few sessions with this tea and the experiences were fairly consistent. The middle cups in each session were deep and darkly sweet, woodsy, roasted, and fruity. The roasted note was smooth. In the first session, I noted that this tea "drinks like a hong cha with fruit" and in the second session, I noticed that the final cup had acquired the briskness you would find in an Indian black tea.

I used a small volume side-handled pot to prepare this tea. My ratio was 3 grams to 70 ml. Song Yi provides steeping times on its website.

Sun Moon Lake is known for its Ruby 18 black teas, which I like. Song Yi Sun Moon Lake Black does not have a Ruby 18 profile, and that's a good thing. I did not detect any overt cinnamon or wintergreen notes. Its sweet, fruity, woodsy notes are the cup of tea I wanted.

Song Yi Tea provided Sun Moon Lake Black Tea for review.

February 08, 2018

Afternoon Tea at La Chine Waldorf Astoria

One of the first tea experiences I had after returning to the city in the summer of 2016 was afternoon tea with Jee at La Chine in the Waldorf Astoria. I misplaced my notes (gasp) and always thought I'd be able to return soon and make new ones. However, the Waldorf Astoria is closed until 2020.

The review I offer here is based on a general recollection and not specifics except regarding the honey. La Chine restaurant offered two afternoon teas: La Chine and Imperial. We chose the former. The perfectly sized scones were served with the usual condiments and honey. The honey was very good. It was harvested from the hotel's rooftop apiary. I think I ordered the Margaret's Hope Darjeeling. It was very good. Your tea was steeped perfectly in the kitchen, poured into a tea pot, and served at the table.

The sweets and savories were good. I was eating fish and seafood at the time so ate the stacked salmon sandwich and lobster roll.

As I write this the sweet that stands out in my memory is the layered confection pictured above. I don't recall the flavors but I know I liked it. I really wish I had my notes! For two other perspectives on afternoon tea on La Chine, read Bethany Looi  and The Wandering Eater.
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