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Experiments with purple tea

January 03, 2012

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Equipment for brewing purple teaIt’s not often that I get the opportunity to work with a tea with very little historical precedent, a tea in the infancy of its introduction to the worldwide tea community. But the orthodox production purple tea from Royal Tea of Kenya is so new and so unusual that there’s little guidance and no standards, so that means it’s time not to learn, but to experiment and pull out the arsenal of tools and equipment.

I should also add that my brewing methods typically come from what I know about a type of tea and what I’ve learned previously. I’m intransigently neglectful of accompanying instructions provided by tea companies, plus I tend to approach many of my tea drinking adventures as science experiments in the first place. In the case of the purple orthodox tea I don’t remember what information I started out with, but I knew that this was not a tea I would want to brew with boiling water. I didn’t want to emphasize the astringency as much as I wanted to bring out the grapy sweetness.

Orthodox Purple Tea, dry leafSome of my initial experiments were underwhelming and even jarring, so I knew I had to find better methods. The dry leaf seems kind of like a black tea, and kind of like a green tea, so it was not obvious what variables of leaf quantity, water temperature, or brewing time to choose for it. I could tell that this intriguing tea had the potential to brew into something I really enjoyed, so I set about figuring out how to get satisfying and consistent results (and document my methods to help other people while I was at it).

The Camellia sinensis clonal bush (Clone TRFK 306/1) that produces this purple tea has been in development by The Tea Research Foundation of Kenya for the past 25 years, and has been cultivated to produce unprecedented high levels of anthocyanins, which are the antioxidant pigments that make leaves and fruits red, blue or purple. As a result, the very dark leaf can result in an abrasive and harsh brew. But that same element can produce a very pleasant and surprising wine-like note above the underlying tea taste.

Purple Tea, brewed liquor

Through trial and error, and retesting my steps, this is what I determined worked for me:

small black teapot

  • Pour boiling spring water into a small ceramic teapot (about 8 ounces of water), and then empty the water into a serving pitcher to cool.
  • Place 1 teaspoon of dry leaf into the teapot (2 grams).
  • Pour boiling water from the kettle onto the tea leaves, filling the teapot about halfway.
  • Immediately pour out and discard this initial “rinsing infusion.”
  • When the water in the serving pitcher has reached 160 degrees f. pour the water into the teapot with the rinsed leaves.
  • Steep the tea for 3 minutes.
  • Pour the tea out into the serving pitcher through a fine mesh strainer.

purple tea, pouring into cupFor a second infusion use the same temperature of water and the same steeping time. If you want to try to coax a third infusion out of it, use boiling water and steep for about 7 minutes.

This is what I determined worked for me, but adjusting the variables can result in emphasizing different qualities of the tea, according to taste. Adding a minute or two to the steeping time or using slightly more leaf are possible options. Of course the initial rinsing infusion could be omitted, but I found that it tamed the tea in a way that produced a much smoother liquor, which I liked better.

You can read more about the properties of purple tea on its product page on the Phoenix Tea website.

You can also read about purple tea on Lazy Literatus’ post, Four-Eyed No-Horned Flightless Purple Tea Drinker, and the article on T-Ching written by Joy M. W’Njuguna, one of the founders of Royal Tea of Kenya.

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