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Tea Talk

What The Fluff?

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It’s a tale as old as time… (insert singing tea-pot joke here.)

You ordered tea. You’re excited as you get the package in the mail. You’ve been anticipating the delicious flavor rolling over your palate for a week or two, and now, the time has come! You carefully open your tea and… POOF! (Not the matcha flavored POOF either. That’s an entirely different mess.) Your tea is covered in fluff that is now floating around your room. Sneezing ensues!

This is, of course, worst case scenario. Most people accept the fluff, and move on. Occasionally, the odd tea drinker will crumple to the floor, saddened by the idea that their tea is covered in mold. In either case, the thought has gone through almost everyone’s head.

But really, what is the fluff? Science first.

Almost all plants have a layer of hair somewhere on them called trichomes, and the Camellia sinensis plant is no different. Trichomes help protect a plant from the harsh world around them. They act as sunscreen, or frost deterrent, or moisture retainer, or predator deterrent. Basically, they help keep the world out, and the good things in.

When trichomes are present on tea, we refer to it as “down”, and the teas with trichomes are called “downy”. They are most often found on the newly formed tea buds. Those young buds require a great amount of care to retain their down through the process of tea making. This means tea with fluff is going to be handled very delicately, meaning it is higher quality.

Don’t get confused. Not all high quality teas are going to have fluff. I’ve never seen an oolong with fluff, and it’s uncommon for most black and green teas to have it due to the bruising/firing/steaming/roasting. There are exceptions of course.

Golden Monkey Finest

Here we have a black tea and green tea with down. The black (above) tea is Golden Monkey. It happens to be your's truly's favorite black tea. Ever. It has a soft, yet rich cocoa flavor, and is characterized by the golden buds of black tea present among the leaves.

Pi Lo Chun

This green tea is Pi Lo Chun, a Chinese green tea, and a great example of a downy green tea. While this tea still has a fantastic green tea quality, it brews quite silkier and a tad sweeter.

More often than not, down is found on white tea.

Bai Mu Dan

Above is Bai Mu Dan, classically characterized by it’s two leaf, one bud pluck. Bai Mu Dan translates to ‘white peony’ in Chinese, which is exactly the words I would use to describe the exquisite taste of this tea. It has a soft, floral quality that is reminiscent of blooming peonies (without the ants).

African Highland Silver Needle

This photo is of African Highland Silver Needle. Silver needle is probably the most well known downy tea. It produces a sweet, almost hay-like flavor. The Tanzanian variety has a unique terroir that is much more earthy than it's Chinese counterpart, which adds a unique depth to the cup. 

So what is it exactly that brings all of this together? One thing I have noticed in my travels from cup to cup is that downy tea always appears to have an incredible mouthfeel. It's like drinking liquid silk. (I completely regret saying that. That sounds awful. Pretend that didn't happen.)

The general consensus is that downy tea is fluffing great!

Oh, and super special thanks to my personal botanist, Simon Maxwell Raden for all of the help researching trichomes. He has his own slightly unrelated blog, called Smells and Momentum, at http://smellsandmomentum.com, which is full of rad culinary tips and foodie delights. 

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