Tea 2014

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The teas I tasted in A.D. 2014 and what I thought about them. Prices are per pound.

Earl Grey

In mid-April, for no good reason, I started craving Earl Grey. Since I discovered green tea a few years ago, I’ve not been very interested in black teas, but one chilly morning I just couldn’t resist a cup. Tazo is run-of-the-mill in my opinion, so I thought I’d venture out and sample a few others.

Rishi Organic Earl Grey. [Central Market; $42.99] This is exactly what I was looking for! It’s the classic taste of Earl Grey, but with a little kick. The heavy scent of the bergamot surprised me when I opened the jar at the store (loose leaf teas are sold by the ounce at Central Market, so you spoon them from canisters into little zipper bags right there in the aisle). I brew strong tea, and even though the second steeping wasn’t all that strong, it still had a distinct aroma and taste.

Lahaha Original Earl Grey. [Central Market; $89.99] In comparison with the Rishi Organic, I am disappointed in the Lahaha offering. It isn’t quite “Grey” enough. The flavor is very flat, conservative. I expected better given that it costs twice as much per pound. I will admit, the second steeping held its own. It also makes a decent black iced tea.

TROT Green Earl Greyer. [Central Market; $32.99] Yes, this is green tea flavored with bergamot orange oil. I brewed a cup of the Rishi Organic for comparison. A short steeping resulted in an odd and unbalanced flavor. It’s green, but a bit off. A few additional minutes made a huge difference, producing a nice strong green tea with a slight citrus zing to it. Re-steeping simply resulted in a cup of green tea with no “Grey” at all. This tea will probably take a lot of getting used to for me. I’m expecting Earl Grey and I’m tasting green tea. Talk about gustatory dissonance!

Rishi Earl Green. [Central Market; $69.99] I thought TROT’s green Earl Grey was a novel idea, and then I found a second one. There is no question about it, the Rishi green-Grey is a far superior product. The leaves are larger, not crushed like the Earl Greyer, with a strong aroma (both dry and brewed) and a balanced taste. The saturated leaves make for a better presentation too. It took me about two sips to realize its secret (which I promptly confirmed on the Rishi website): it does not use typical green tea as a base, but an oolong tea! The oolong-bergamot combination works so well!

Rishi Organic Earl Grey Lavender. [Central Market; $45.99] This is a variant of the first Rishi above, which has been my baseline tea for the past two weeks of tasting. It includes tiny organic lavender flowers as well as the essential oil. I have brewed several cups alongside the baseline Rishi and, honestly, I haven’t been able to detect an appreciable difference between them. I even tasted at different intervals in the steeping process, thinking perhaps that the lavender was being overshadowed by the other ingredients, but to no avail.

Looking back on the two weeks of tasting, I have to declare Rishi Organic Earl Grey my favorite for a classic taste, and name Rishi Earl Green the winner in the something completely different category. For the sake of completion, I did sip two other brands, Twinings Organic Earl Grey (bag) and Timothy’s World Tea (K-Cup), and both were highly disappointing in comparison with the loose leaf offerings.

Other Teas

Starway Bilouchun Green Tea. [Asian grocery store; ~$21.31] I was looking for an ‘everyday’ green tea, and since most greens taste about the same to me I really wanted to find a bargain. So I wandered into an Asian grocery while I was running some other errands and found a tin for $7.99. There were several varieties, and I had not heard of Bilouchun before, so I figured it was worth a try. It is a very tasty tea, a little bitter, and I like to brew it strong. Apparently I paid too much though, because I’ve seen several reports that it can be found for $4 to $5 a tin, about half of what I paid. Even then, it’s a really good deal. Here’s another reviewer that agrees, and his post has a picture of the tins.

Rishi Chocolate Chai. [Central Market; $49.99] I’m not a fan of flavored coffee, so I was hesitant to try a “chocolate” chai. I’m so glad I did. I caught the scent if it as I prepared my first cup and thought it smelled awfully familiar. I immediately associated the taste with Mexican food for some reason, enchilada sauce to be precise. The reason? This tea contains roasted cocoa nibs and cocoa has been an important ingredient in Mexican cuisine for centuries. It’s awesome slightly sweetened and with milk, almost like Mexican hot chocolate.

Yogi Egyptian Licorice. [Major Retailers; ~$62] This is not a new acquisition. I actually tasted this tea a few years ago. I was cleaning out some old papers in my office recently and found one of the tea bag wrappers nestled in the pages. Apparently, this one never made it on any of my tea critique pages. Yogi brand teas are commonly available here, and this variety is usually in stock at Kroger and Sprouts. The price above is current, about $4.90 for a box of sixteen bags. The name says it all. If you don’t like licorice then this tea is not for you. It is naturally sweet (surprisingly so), so no sugar is needed. Other than the distinct licorice taste, it has a spiciness not unlike chai. The sweetness really hits the palette immediately after swallowing! This is considered an herbal tea and there are a few health safety warnings associated with licorice root, especially when it is consumed in large quantities.

TROT Big Green Hojicha. [Central Market; $42.99] Big Green is actually brown, because the leaves are roasted. Curled and crushed, they sit in the tiny zippered plastic bag like a sample taken from the forest floor in midwinter when the trees are bare and their leaves have been amply trodden upon. So much for presentation. Despite that, the taste is very good! It is similar to an Imperial cut, but with that unmistakable pan-roasted taste. It reminds me of old books (of which I am very fond, so that’s not a bad thing), with their musty smell and pages that have darkened over time more toward the edges than in the middle. I’m suddenly inspired to brew another cup, retrieve an old book from the antique collection, and sit by the fire in the living room for the rest of the night. [Addendum: The first steep is yellow and allowing it to steep longer than usual makes it orange. The second steeping starts off pink and then moves to orange. I’ve seen tea get weaker with multiple steepings, but I think this is the first color change I’ve noticed.]

Rishi Marsala Chai. [Central Market; $39.99] This is a good chai, though unlike last year when I tasted several at once, I don’t have a baseline for comparison. Despite its reddish color, this chai is based on a black tea and not rooibos.

Rishi Cinnamon Plum. [Central Market; $32.99] Again, I’m not a big fan of fruity teas, but this one is an exception. Brew it strong and add a little sweetener, and it’s like drinking mulled wine. Good stuff!

Rishi Vanilla Bean. [Central Market; $54.99] Looking back at my list for 2014, I have obviously taken a liking to Rishi teas. Made from black tea and vanilla beans, this one probably tastes exactly the way you would expect. It definitely requires sweetener to get the full effect. Great accompaniment for shortbread or other not-so-sweet baked goods.

TROT Silver Rain White. [Central Market; $79.99] Sometimes I want something with a really light taste, but not green, so I either brew a really weak black tea or indulge in a white tea. This one is priced right and there’s nothing added to mask the misty taste. It’s especially good when I’m suffering from a headache.

TROT Lapsang Souchong. [Central Market; $39.99] I visited the TROT website to look up the particulars on this one. I couldn’t help but notice the reviews, especially the one from Julian of Arroyo Grande, CA: “Smells and tastes like a campfire.” If by campfire you mean the taste of wet ash, then I agree. Sorry, Julian, I’m afraid I’m not a fan of this one. From what I’ve read, this tea is made from the least desirable leaves of the tea tree, and its taste is owed primarily to the pinewood smoke used to dry it. Well, perhaps campfire is an appropriate description after all.

Royal King 100% Natural Premium Long Jing Tea. [FREE] This tea was free, at least to me it was. Someone in the office bought a box and left it in the break room for all to share. If I can find the exact same product offered locally or online, I’ll note the price here. I don’t usually expect much from tea distributed in standard tea bags, but this stuff is pretty good! It has the dragon well taste, and one bag produced a nice strong brew.

Rishi Iron Goddess of Mercy. [Central Market; $64.99] Yeah, I admit it, I pretty much bought this tea based on the name. I mean, c’mon, Iron Goddess of Mercy? What does that even mean? It must be some tea, right? Actually, it does mean something, but it was not the brainchild of some marketing executive. The proper name for this tea is Tieguanyin, and it is named after Guanyin, the Chinese goddess of mercy. According to legend, Guanyin played a key role in the discovery if this tea. It is an oolong tea, and there are several variations available based on processing and time of harvest. The Rishi offering is made in the winter and spring using a traditional method developed in the Fujian province where the tea originated. Tieguanyin is considered a premium tea, and this product is pretty tasty! The leaves are full, so the tea can be brewed in-cup for those who like to chew the leaves. This tea is very much to my liking.

Rishi Pu-Erh Vanilla Mint. [Central Market; $59.99] This is a nice cozy tea, something that might taste good around Christmas time. The taste is very balanced. The mint is not overpowering, which was my main concern when I bought it. Think about how peppermint-flavored hot chocolate differs in taste from regular hot chocolate. This is very similar. As with the Rishi Vanilla Bean above, sweetener is necessary, and I highly recommend adding some sort of creamer to mellow the taste (I prefer half-n-half over milk).

I decided to do a side-by-side comparison of Rishi Vanilla Bean and Rishi Pu-Erh Vanilla Mint. I used the same amount of tea, water, sugar, milk (half-n-half), and steeping time for each brew. The only difference was that the Vanilla Bean cooled for a few minutes while the Vanilla Mint was steeping; however, that variance was likely rendered insignificant when the milk was added. Regarding the teas themselves, they both contain vanilla bean, they differ in the base tea used (black versus Pu-Erh), and the Vanilla Mint contains mint, cinnamon, and licorice root, whereas the only additional ingredient in the Vanilla Bean is “natural vanilla flavor”. Having tasted the two teas in one sitting, I can definitely say that I am disappointed in the Vanilla Bean. The Vanilla Mint has a much better flavor balance and more body. The Vanilla Bean made a comparatively weak brew with an overpowering vanilla taste, as though vanilla extract had been stirred directly into a glass of milk.

TROT Organic Honey Lemon Green Tea. [Central Market; $32.99] I found nothing remarkable about this tea. The promised flavors were there, but even a long steeping produced a relatively weak and flavorless brew. Sweetener and creamer didn’t add much at all.

Rishi Coconut Oolong. [Central Market; $59.99] This was a treat. This tea is so full-bodied that I almost forgot it was just tea. Steep it long and use sweetener and creamer! Half & half really bolsters the coconut flavor and makes the final product extra smooth and creamy. Like chai, this is a good alternative to the green and black staples, but well-suited for times when you don’t want something spicy.