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.  :)

Random observations

Being at a conference means that I can only have bad tea. I have no option of brewing any sort of tea at home, and the only available tea around the conference area was Starbucks.

Which…. interestingly enough, no longer offers Tazo. Instead, we have Starbucks offering Harney & Sons teas now, in those nifty pyramid teabags. Most of the teas are odd though… including some Mudan white tea with bergamont oil (yes, a White Earl Grey), green tea with lemon and ginger, and that sort of thing…. not exactly what I was looking for. I just got an English breakfast.

I almost missed the Tazo stuff seeing the odd flavours coming from H&S

Tea in Harvard Square

I’ve been living around Harvard Square now for four years, and really, I’ve been blessed by the number of tea stores that are around this little area. Over the years, it has gotten more tea vendors. This is not to say that they are all of high quality or sell exotic things, but for the US of A, I think my selection here is not too bad.

So what do we have around Harvard Square?

I guess we’ll start with A. Dado Tea. They have a nice tea menu, as you can see. But you can also see that they’re not cheap. 2.25 for a basic cup to go, and very little leaves at that. If you want Korean green tea though, this is the place to go. It’s also nicely decorated/setup so that drinking tea there is actually rather pleasant. It’s also a bubble tea place… and I think that’s where they make their money.

Tealuxe is sort of the original tea store around here, as far as I know. They only sell tea — and one kind of coffee (which nobody buys, as far as I can tell). I remember they used to carry a superb selection of teas, some of which I’ve never heard of, and there was always something interesting to drink there. Unfortunately, I think they overexpanded a few years ago and had to cut back (probably took on more than they can chew). Nowadays, they offer mostly black teas and, horror of horrors, flavoured black teas and herbal teas. Their oolongs and greens are nowhere near what they used to be, and they have yet to offer any kind of puerh. Oh well, that doesn’t matter so much. They’re rather expensive, but good for a reliable cup of tea when I’m in a rush.

Then there’s Peet’s, which stinks of coffee when you walk in. The tea menu, however, is not bad, and has some really strange things. There’s this one tea that I tried recently called “Imperial Red”, and I honestly have no idea what it is. In some ways, their offering of teas might actually be the best among all the stores in Harvard Square now, surprisingly enough. As much as I’d hate to admit that a coffee store is selling decent tea, this one actually does. I should probably go visit their home in Berkeley at some point.

There are a whole bunch of places that sell pretty decent teas, but which are not listed in the google results, because they are primarily coffee joints. These places, such as Toscanini’s (an ice cream bar), Cafe Gato Rojo (a cafe in a Harvard building), Cafe Pamplona (a little place in the basement of a house with 6ft clearance — if you’re too tall, you won’t be comfortable there), among others. They are all supplied by a business called Mem Tea (G). It’s a great service, as they are just a wholesaler doing mostly restaurant and cafe business, but the consumers, like me, get to drink loose leaf teas that are actually decent. These places, if not for the existence of Mem Tea, would all be selling me teabags of various kinds, most likely Stash or Twinnings or Lipton or some other such thing. Instead, they use the “loose leaf in a bag” system and have various kinds of teas on offer. They don’t do retail, except through stores that buy them, but I’ve met the owner of the thing and he is quite a nice person. I’m always glad to see those signature tea containers that they use, because it means I can order a reasonable cup at that place.

There’s a new store in town that isn’t even on the maps yet, at the corner of Massachusetts Ave. and Remington St., called Karma…. something. They’re downstairs from a Yoga Studio of the same name, and offers tea up front. It’s a sleekly designed place, and I tried one tea there already… a Yunnan black of some sort. It’s not bad. I couldn’t figure out where they source their teas. Sometimes it’s obvious where a store gets their teas, but this one isn’t. I might go back again and try something else they have to see if it’s up to any good.

So, while the offerings around here isn’t fantastic, I have a feeling that this is probably better than most. At the very least, I can always count on a cup of tea that is brewed with loose leaf tea and not have to worry about the horror that is a teabag. Then again, when I’m despearte enough, I can even drink McDonald’s tea…