Thursday, April 01, 2010

Review: "Vanilla Mint Tea Therapy" concentrate


Like many of the more erudite publications, this forum tends to focus on the rarefied reaches of the tea-mountain (and profounder depths of the clay-pit), seeking ever the exquisite and superb fringe from the true red robe. But if it be that global tea consumption exceeds that of coffee, chocolate and cola combined, with beer, wine and spirits thrown in for good measure (if not a very palatable blend), then it is a safe bet that most sippers and swillers will never even hear of the whole class of leaf in which we here luxuriate, much less touch and taste any such delicacies.

Seeking ever the democratic balance, therefore, this intrepid reporter ventured forth into the lower depths, the lower shelves, the lower-priced aisles of the souk in search of the commonplace and congenial.

Let me say from the start that I have no objection in principle to "workingman's tea" (as my late Leodensian uncle instructed me to bring him back from trips across the pond), to admixtures with lesser flora, or even to elixirs dehydrated from previously decocted extractions. Indeed, I begin most mornings with a sizable dose of Taylor's of Harrogate—premium among CTC blends in the New World, but just 99 new pence (at discount) for 250 grams wherever loose tea is still to be found in the supermarkets of the Old. And to this I add a splash of non-fat milk, by way of sequestering tannins from the raw hide of my stomach. I even used to enjoy chai, before lactose intolerance corrupted the pleasure. (One fond memory: an hour-long phone call to a remote beloved, with a handful of loose Sikh masala on the bright-lit kitchen counter, parsing grain by spicy grain with a jeweler's loupe and Dumont & Fils #2 watchmaker's tweezer to reverse-engineer the ingredients and proportions of my favorite but pricey Yogi Tea blend.) And as Gandhi said of Western civilization, I think concentrates would be a very good idea, were very good ones to be had. I often dream of special-ordering just the finest specks sieved from a tonne or so of Yorkshire Gold, dark dust of pure tea-juice, flaked away from crass leaf and potent with all the best savors. The issue is not principle, but execution, which too often descends to the mediocre or downright nasty.

Thus it was that while browsing a local emporium for an unrelated product, I ran across this one, on sale at a price—$1.59 for 15 fluid ounces—low enough that possibly having to throw it all away would not strain the budget. The brand was familiar, though not one of my usuals. And while I do not admire plastic packaging in general, the front label was reasonably attractive

if somewhat less than informative, with ambiguously exotic typeface and a Mumbai-modern image of brew, mint leaf, orchid bean, and what one assumes to be a camellia flower. While vanilla and mint seem a reasonable complement to each other, and each is itself a familiar of tea, my prior experience did not include both at once. (Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman!) It was apparent from sniffing the unopened container that vanilla would dominate, not surprising given the low bulk price of more-or-less pure vanillin from waste sulfite pulp liquors or petrochemical guaiacol. (Yummy.) The implausibly aquamarine tone of the foamy, viscous contents was also intriguing, not suggestive of any tea I have ever seen. (–Unless one would stretch the rubric to include that delightfully synaesthetic tapioca confection.)

As a room-temperature concentrate, the fluid had an unpleasant "chemical" smell. Now, I once dabbled in industrial organic chemistry, and am not alienated by unpretentious technical aromas. (In fact, before foul oxygenate blends became the norm, I quite liked the reek of gasoline, and still enjoy splashing fuel into my diesel tractor.) It is the presumptuous ersatz scents that offend: counterfeit perfumes, phony fruit flavors, the cloying pine and lemon in cleaning products. This stuff smelled like a cheap jelly-bean that had baked too long under a Mojave sun.

Diluted considerably with warm water, the whole aroma profile normalized somewhat, to the point of being only slightly annoying. The very small amount that I actually allowed into my mouth tasted soapy-sweet, redolent of the vanilla and mint, but with no detectable tea notes at all under the miasma.

The actual ingredients list was printed in three-point type (what we used to call "minikin" in the hot-metal world), in white ink on the back of the white bottle, shown here with a fresh sprig of mountain mint and a slightly stale vanilla bean:

The NSA could hardly have done a better job of encrypting key data while still complying with FDA disclosure regulations. The first component, predictably, was water. Vanilla plantifolia fruit extract was about two-thirds of the way down, under a slew of polysyllabic better-living-throughs like hydroxypropyl methylcellulose, a close cousin to the fast-food shake thickener whose taste, once identified, makes all such concoctions unpalatable to those of any sensibility. After three more such came Mentha piperita leaf extract, Camellia sinensis leaf extract, then a few vitamins. A small dose indeed of the titular infusion, with any therapeutic effects homeopathic at best.

Notwithstanding the above, I can give this product a just-passing grade for its intended purpose. I am unable to confirm the makers' claim that it "keeps color treated hair looking great" as I maintain what remains of mine in its native state. But it seems to lather and clean well enough, without leaving a residual aroma of either those natural extracts or the refunctionalized tropical-oil base. Not exactly a triumph for Alberto VO5, but adequate to the purpose. And well within the economic and sensory ambit of many readers of this and other tea-forums.

Next April 1st, we'll take another leaf from S.J. Perelman and delve into tea-enhanced fingernail polish, house paint and floor wax.