Like it or not, winter is coming! Its frigid, dark, and soggy grasp eventually ensnares all of us one way or another. However, tea lovers like ourselves have several hot and delicious beveragey weapons in our arsenal against the coming night and its many terrors, and the jewel in our culinary crown has to be a strong-ass cup of straight black tea. As long as I have a steaming hot cuppa dark red goodness at my side, I can happily look outside my frosted windows and wiggle my eyebrows maniacally while laughing at the poor children who are forced to shovel their parents driveways (assuming I’ve already shoveled mine :P). I recently heard about Simple Loose Leaf’s subscription service on Steepster, and for just $7.50 for a box of five 0.5 oz samples of tea, I figured it was easily worth taking a chance on. Their “Yunnan Noir” tea was the first sample I opened, and its character and complexity has kept me well occupied and away from opening the other samples until its last tightly-curled leaves wandered into my teapot on the day of this review’s writing.
Let me just preface this review by saying this tea is bloomin’ intense. Easily the most powerful flavors I’ve tasted since beginning this blog. My curiosity was piqued as soon as I opened the package and breathed in the deep, spicy cocoa essence of the leaves, and things only got more interesting as time went on.
Yunnan Noir is a taste adventure, to say the least. I’d not really recommend brewing it “western style” in a big ol’ teapot, as I think you’ll miss out on a lot of the flavors you can only extract with short, highly concentrated steepings. A gaiwan or mug-infuser is definitely recommended. 🙂 My first steeping was with gently boiled water and probably about a tablespoon of tea in my little ~150ml-ish gaiwan-sized brewing basket for roughly 1:30. I oversteeped the first brew about 30 seconds too much looking back on it now, though the first steeping was forgiving and there was no bitterness or strong astringency despite my error. The resulting drink tasted malty and chocolatey, with a few sweet lingering notes of honey in the crisp aftertaste.
The second steep is where things got crazy. The tea brewed extremely dark and looked like it could have passed for black coffee. I allowed the leaves to remain in the basket for roughly ~1:45, thinking the second steeping may be a little more forgiving with the strength of the flavor, but I was definitely wrong. Once the leaves have unfurled, the full flavor of this tea will bite you on the butt if you’re not careful! The brew was still not as astringent as it easily could have been judging by the color of the drink, but suddenly became earthy and spicey with a bittersweet aftertaste like dark chocolate. Any subtle sweet notes from the first steeping were completely gone. From here on out, I limited subsequent steepings to a maximum of 1 minute’s worth of exposure. I know.. it doesn’t exactly make sense to brew tea for LESS time as a session goes on, but sometimes you’ve gotta break the rules a bit to find the taste you’re looking for. 🙂
On the third steep, the liquid lightened to a deep red, and the earthy tones of the tea became a bit less overwhelming. Some of the sweeter cocoa notes from the first steeping crept back into the flavor profile.
As I drank my way to steeping #4, the brew still retained its spicy and earthy flavors, though at this point it almost tasted interestingly like a fruity black coffee. The leaves themselves still have more to offer, though I would up steep times from here on out to probably additional 30 seconds per infusion. I can see this tea remaining productive for roughly 6-7 steeps in total.
I really enjoyed the complex taste of Yunnan Noir, speaking as someone who is more used to sweeter black teas. However, I found the flavors very hard to control and reproduce successfully with the taste varying widely from steeping to steeping. If you get some of this stuff, you need to treat it with respect and experiment with strict steep times before you can lock down the taste you really want. Personally I wish there was a bit more available in the sample so I could get a better handle of steep times and manage to coax out more of those cocoa flavors I enjoyed so much in the first steeping throughout the entire session, but I’m definitely happy with my experience and purchase of this tea overall. Talk about a wild ride! 🙂
Overall Grade: B