Instant tea

So last time I tried K-cups for you, and the results are pretty bad. Well, I’m just wrapping up a work trip in Japan, and while here, I had the pleasure of staying at a place that offered this in the room

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For a country with a lot of tea, and where teabag is really commonplace, I’m not sure what compelled this particular hotel in Kyoto to give you these things instead. They are, basically, instant tea.

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There were two flavours – hojicha (brown) and sencha (green). I tried the hojicha first, because why not? I filled the cup with hot water

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Hojicha, as many of you know, is roasted green tea. It’s a restaurant favourite and many places give you that when you sit down for food. It’s not very sophisticated – it’s roasty, and often taste a bit burnt. That also means it’s hard to screw up. Well, this one… if I were just handed this without being told what it is, I wouldn’t know what it is, because it only has the faintest hint of hojicha taste. Coloured water is more like what it was, and a pretty tasteless one at all. If the k-cups were just bad tasting, this one was just bland, really bland.

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The sencha, unfortunately, is no better – equally bland. The only thing resembling tea is its green colour. There’s very little taste, no texture, and low aroma. It’s really quite baffling why anyone would try these and think “oh, let’s use these instead of teabags.” The only reason – and not a very good one – is novelty. However, when novelty comes at the price of the end result, it’s hard to justify the novelty value. This thing is probably a lot more energy intensive to make, cost more, and deliver less.

Lesson? Teabags, for what it’s worth, are pretty great and hard to improve upon. Don’t fix it if it ain’t broken.


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Many of you have probably seen these machines, some of you probably use it on a regular basis at work or at home, and others have most likely at least heard about it. Keurig is one of these companies that make single-use pods for caffeinated (mostly) drinks. You stick the cup in the machine, you press a button, and out comes a cup of whatever it is that you were promised. Sounds good enough? I remember we had one of these almost 15 years ago at my workplace then, when these were still pretty novel. I never used it, of course, because back then the selection was almost entirely coffee. Nowadays they have everything you can name, and are much more common than before. The other big player in this market is Nespresso, of course, which is more common in Hong Kong but based on more or less the same idea.

This machine you see here was in our hotel room on a recent trip we made back to North America. Among the cups we got in the room were the above two – a Tazo Awake tea (basically an English breakfast blend) and a Celestial Seasonings Antioxidant Green Tea. In the name of science, I had to try them.

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Brewing the tea was of course pretty simple – you stick the cups in, you put water in, you press the button. Then out comes the tea. The first thing you might notice from this picture is that the green tea is really, really cloudy, while the black tea was ok, for the most part. If you were there, you’ll also note that the green tea is almost entirely devoid of any aroma – you can barely smell anything putting your nose up against the cup. The black tea was a little better, with a smell that is recognizable as an English breakfast blend of sorts.

The taste pretty much confirms what you can already guess – the green tea, if we can even call it that, was awful. The closest thing I’ve tasted that is like this is a really stale, really old green tea. It’s bitter, it’s devoid of any meaningful flavour, and it’s just…. plain nasty. I don’t discount the possibility that, in this small town hotel, the green tea has indeed been sitting around for a while. However, since they dropped off this pod at our request, that this could’ve been recycled multiple times also seems somewhat unlikely.

The black tea was drinkable – it’s not great by any stretch of imagination, but it’s drinkable. If in a pinch, I’d be ok with drinking this. If your alternative is a teabag from pretty much anywhere else, the teabag will win. The body of this cup is also quite thin, with a weak aroma and a weird aftertaste. It’s not spit-it-out bad (the way the green tea is) but it’s not exactly a winner.

I of course had no expectation of great tea coming in. You can pretty much guess this is tea of the nasty-grade variety. I was a bit surprised that the green tea is this bad – I expected something remotely drinkable, but instead got a flavourless bitter pill, basically. The leaves they use are of course teabag grade – you can see it’s the usual materials you find in teabags. I think the infusion method, which uses a drip-coffee style mini-filter, just doesn’t work for tea.

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On the Keurig website, buyers have rated the Tazo k-cup a 5 star. The Celestial Seasonings green tea, on the other hand, is 3.5 star. As you know, a 3.5 star rating is pretty much crap in the online world. Glad to know the buyers are somewhat discerning. It’s no wonder that they need to add the word “antioxidant” in there – the tea is not going to sell itself.

The thing that gets me about these things is cost. One k-cup will set you back about 90 cents USD per cup. In contrast, a teabag will be about 30 cents per cup if you buy one box, dropping to 20 cents if you are willing to buy in bulk (prices from Amazon). The green tea is a bit cheaper, but that thing shouldn’t be drunk even if it’s free. That means the k-cups are easily 3-4 times more expensive than the traditional teabag, yet it delivers a far inferior product. I would argue it’s really not much more convenient than a teabag either – unlike coffee, which is a bit of a pain to make on a per-cup basis, tea is actually quite easy to handle. In other words, get some teabags and stop paying extra for a terrible cup of tea.

Bad tea, good tea

I just came back from a short trip to Salem, MA, where a good friend got married.  When you mention Salem, most people think witches, but in reality, witches was just a small part of the city, and the place’s claim to fame for much of its history was a center for the old China trade, where they imported porcelain of all types, and of course, tea.  Salem is now home to the Peabody Essex Museum, which houses many artifacts from this once thriving trade route (if you’re nearby, you should visit), and where the wedding took place.

So it is with a little irony that it was last night, in this town, that I had perhaps the worst tea I have ever encountered.  It’s in a bag form, of course

Sorry for the poor quality — taken with the phone.  When you’re at somebody’s wedding, you can’t really say “no, please just give me a pot of hot water, as I brought my own tea”.  You take what you’re given.  I needed something to wash down the rather decent but rich wedding cake, so, heck, I’ll survive a tea bag.

Or so I thought.

The “Orange Pekoe & Pekoe Cut Black Tea” produced a “tea” that was rather acidic, more lemon juice like than tea, and utterly devoid of real tea flavour.  Of course, it’s prepared by a coffee company — probably just a ploy to get people to stop drinking tea and instead, turn to the dark side of coffee.  It was a very nice wedding, and the food was excellent.  My wife said the coffee was all right as well.  If only caterers can do better tea — it really ought not to be so hard, even when you’re trying to feed 150 people.

At least I should be pleased that it is a “Natural source of Antioxidants”.  Now if only I drink this every day, I’ll live to a hundred years.

This morning we braved the horrific New England mid-June weather of rain and wind and went to downtown Salem to look at some things, hoping in vain that I might find some old China trade antique.  The weather, however, was not cooperative, and we gave up quite quickly.  This was not before we found a place called Jaho Coffee Roasters & Tea Merchants though.  There were only a few customers, as I think the weather has deterred all but the bravest to go anywhere, but you can tell this is a place serious about its coffee.  They also have a lot of tea canisters lined up along the wall, but as anybody who’s been to Teavana knows, that’s no guarantee of quality.

Turns out their tea selection, while certainly not like, say The Tea Gallery, was not terrible either.  I ordered an Ali Shan oolong while my wife went for the more exotic coffees they have.  I like to order oolongs at teashops I’ve never been to — it’s usually a pretty good indication of what their selection is like.  If the oolong is awful, the place can’t be that good.  If the oolong is decent, it’s probably all right.  If the oolong is great, well, it’s promising.  Everybody can do good black tea, and green tea is really too much of a hit or miss.  Oolong is dependable… and less likely to be toxic waste.

The Ali Shan is what I expected it to be, light to medium fired, sweet, no hint of grass, which is good.  The only problem I have is with the teaware

The same cup set as that other place I went to a few months ago.  I’m sorry, but this kind of cup, while convenient for drinks service, really isn’t so good for tea drinkers.  The problem is you simply cannot tell how well brewed your tea is, and there is absolutely no indication of the colour of the tea.  I find that to be a very disconcerting thing, drinking a tea when I have no idea what colour the liquor is.  One of the pleasures of tea is its varying colours, from a light shade of green when brewing a cup of longjing to a deep, dark cooked puerh, the range of the visual pleasure of seeing that colour is an experience in and of itself.  Using a black cup completely obscures that aspect of tea.  Why?

I suppose the tea timer I was given with the pot is a bit of a remedy, to try to tell the drinker how long he or she might want to steep the tea, but it’s still a poor substitute.  I don’t think a coffee drinker would want to drink out of a cup that gives no indication of the colour of the brew, so why would a place that seems very serious about their coffee do that to tea?

Other than that though, no real complaints.  My wife described the coffee there as mingblowingly good.  I have no clue about coffee, so I won’t try to pass judgment.  But I think if you’re in serious need of some tea when you’re in Salem, you can probably do a lot worse than going to Jaho.

What not to do with a teabag

Once in a while I will slum it — when I’m on the road, needing some caffeine uptake and have no tea with me, a tea bag isn’t a horrible thing. Not that it happens often, but it does happen.

Today’s little bag though intrigued me…. why, pray tell, would you make a teabag so small? It’s about 2cm in diameter or thereabouts. The leaves in the bag are obviously too tightly packed to have room to expand. While this is all right if you’re brewing it in a tiny vessel with short infusions and very hot water, it’s not ok if it’s a big (maybe 400cc?) cup with water that will soon cool to much less than 100C. Who designed this thing? Don’t waste my Assam!

I think sometimes when teabag makers try to get creative perhaps the marketing people get too much influence and this sort of thing happens. It looks rather interesting, but it doesn’t work.

The same can be said of all those tea balls out there — I remember having a friend who tried to brew tieguanyin using a tea ball. As you can imagine, it doesn’t work — the tea expands so much that there’s simply no room to expand in the cup, resulting in lots of wasted leaves. I suggested my friend to use one of those mugs with a removable filter (sort of like a Korean infuser cup — can somebody remind me of their name?). It worked much better.

Teabag gongfu

Brewing with a teabag can actually be a little tricky, and I’m by no means good at it. I think what it requires is a certain sense of timing — knowing when to pull it out. Too many times I leave my tea in the cup too long. What happens, I think, is that I sort of want a cup of strong tea. Yet… that usually means nasty bitter tea that really isn’t very good to drink. What I need to do is to resist the temptation to make a strong cup, and instead let the teabag out of the cup quite soon — definitely sooner than the usual five minutes prescription. Today I went to Peet’s to get my caffeine fix, and got a (not very good) Lapsang Souchong. I took it out around to 3 minutes mark…. and thankfully, the person who did the teabag didn’t over stuff the bag with leaves, so it actually worked out pretty well, despite the not-so-great tea….

I should, however, just bring some leaves with me tomorrow and make a real cup….

The Dreaded Box

Having been back to the US for about two weeks and having been forced to eat out since I’m not spending time at home, I am reminded by how most Americans view tea — they either come in bottles, iced, in bad teabag varieties, such as those Nestle 100% real tea bags, or they come in the Dreaded Box.

The Dreaded Box I’m talking about is, of course, the great wooden thing they bring to you in supposedly nice restaurants.  I think most of you who’ve eaten out in the US have probably seen it before.  They’re made of some sort of dark wood, maybe about 8 times 8 inches, sometimes with some writing on top, other times blank.  Inside is usually lined with some sort of blue velvet thing, and compartmentalized into (usually) 8 sections.  In these 8 sections, of course, are great delights such as Constant Comment, Orange Spice, English Teatime, or other great offerings from (usually) Bigelow or, horror of horrors, Celestial Seasoning (which is the same as Bigelow anyway).   80% of these are not even teas…. tisanes of various sorts with various artificial or less than artificial flavourings involved.  The packaging already looks bad, and the box is such a waste of the wood because, honestly, Bigelow needs to hire a brand manager and redo their image.

Once in a blue moon, you might have teabags from Harney, which is sadly a welcomed sight when given the alternatives.  When a restaurant actually serves loose leaf, it’s such a rare thing that I sometimes almost feel like jumping up and down.  Yes, some of you will tell me that you don’t order tea outside, and you’d rather drink their (often very good) coffee instead of the nasty “tea” they serve.  Others will say I should just bring my own.  But why is it so hard to find decent tea?  I don’t ask for much.  A good Assam or Keemun will do.  Those are pretty easy to find — just source from Peets or whatever, throw in an infuser and a pot, and let the customer do their own thing.  It’s really not that difficult, and is probably a lot less involved to make for a restaurant than a cappuccino.  I sometimes feel it’s rather ridiculous for, say, a great restaurant to serve up such awful tea.  There are sommeliers for wine, so where are the ones for tea?  My cousin is now working to redo a restaurant’s menu and winelist to make sure they go together.  I wonder if they do Bigelow.

Perhaps if we all start to demand better tea, places will take notice.  After all, I don’t think all places served good Italian or other styles of coffee 20 years ago.  Over time, people have asked for better, and when customers vote with their feet, vendors take notice.  Today I went to a hotel where they have, in the room, teas from Peets, and the room has an electric kettle, a pot, and an infuser, so you can make the tea easily in the room.  Nice touch, but this is Portland, where tea is more common than most of America.  Now if only that were standard.

Welcome to Ohio

Well… sorry for the lack of updates, but as you have probably gathered, I’ve been rather busy moving from place to place. Finally, I’ve arrived at where the trip is about to end — Ohio. Took us a week to get from Beijing to Ohio. After driving for about 12 hours, we’ve gotten to Mount Vernon, Ohio…. and staying at a hotel for the night, look what greeted us when we got into the room.

Yum. I can’t decide if the 100% Leaf Tea (is there tea that isn’t 100% leaf?) is better, or if I should go for the naturally decaffeinated tea (how can tea be naturally decaffeinated?). Cinnamon Apple… I know not to go there.

I decided to drink the loose wet stored puerh that I brought along. Thankfully, they at least have hot water that isn’t contaminated by coffee.

Pyramid teabags

Pyramid teabag is one of those things that we’ve been seeing more and more these few years. Many companies now make them, including I think Lipton, according to an article from, I think, the New York Times a while back. The theory behind them is that pyramid bags, by virtue of their shape, allows for more room for the leaves to be in. They also allow for the tea manufacturer to put whole leaves in them, rather than the fannings that you usually see in regular bags. This, supposedly, will yield a better cup and, of course, be more expensive.

But is it?

I had one today, made by Tea Forte. It was an English breakfast tea, which tasted like your typical Ceylon blend. By the end of the tea…. the bag was filled with the expanded leaves. I am not sure if it really achieved the goal of allowing for more room for the tea to move around.

Also, the amount of tea initially that was available was really tiny…. maybe 2g of tea? It’s quite expensive for what it is….

It might not be much more than a gimmick :(

Three time’s a charm

I started today’s journey to NYC with a cup off McDonald’s tea.  Yes, McDonald’s tea.  It tasted just like the decaf English breakfast the other day, only it doesn’t have the excuse of being decaf.  I even have
a picture to prove it.

Then in the afternoon, I got myself a teabag of Harney & Sons Darjeeling.  Not too bad.  The leaves were really green.  I was wondering if you can properly call this a black tea at all.

Then, tonight, after dinner with Lew Perin, programmer of the very useful Babelcarp, he treated me to a sample of the 88 Qingbing, which is far better than the one I remember from the Best Tea house.  It had some similarities, but this sample was much better in the fragrance department.  Better than the tea though is the company, which was what was really enjoyable about these encounters.  :)