I order a lot1 from Upton Tea Imports because they specialize in loose tea & I’m a sucker for their catalogue. Their prices seem pretty reasonable too, so I don’t bother shopping around2, even buying my tea kettle from them.3 Upton allows reviews if you’ve bought at least a certain quantity, but otherwise your notes are private. This strikes me as a little unfair (a sampler of 10g is more than enough to judge a tea!) and my reviews are a valuable guide to me in ordering, so I keep local copies of my reviews & notes.
When I was young, I was a great fan of hot chocolate, but hot chocolate is troublesome to make if you are making real hot chocolate (with milk & everything). I tried coffee once or twice, but it was even more disgusting than beer. Herbal teas were drinkable, though, and I slowly graduated to green tea. Then one day a my mother bought a Bigelow box set of teas which happened to include an oolong tea.
I instantly fell in love with oolong - not quite as raw and grassy as green tea but not so bitter & disgusting as black tea. (Not that green tea is bad; I still liked it, and all my favorite oolongs tend towards the green side of the oolong spectrum. I just prefer oolongs.)
In roughly chronological order:
Tie-Guan-Yin Oolong First Grade (★★★★☆ / ★★★☆☆)
A very nice tieguanyin (which is one of my favorite kinds of oolong). The flavor is straight oolong: in between green and black, with a tiny bit of sweetness. One of the best I’ve had. Handles re-steeping well. (It is largely the same as the second-grade, but the second had a sort ofOn the strength of this tasting from 2009, I ordered 400g of it in 2012 to be my standard tea when I ran out of samplers; to my great disappointment, it does not taste as good as I remember it. I don’t know whether my palate has become more demanding or whether the quality has fallen. An online acquaintance happened to order some at the same time, and was very satisfied with it, suggesting the former.
woodytaste to it that the first doesn’t.)
Tindharia Estate Oolong (★★★☆☆)Nothing memorable.
Bao Jun (★★☆☆☆)Like the Tindharia, nothing memorable. In fact, this was pretty weak in flavor.
Formosa Heavy-Baked Ti-Guan-Yin (★☆☆☆☆)Far too bitter and dark and
Formosa Jade Oolong Imperial (★★★★★)Extremely good! One of the, if not the best, oolongs I’ve ever had. But also tremendously expensive. But still so good I’m tempted to splurge on 100g anyway.
Tie-Guan-Yin Oolong Second Grade (★★★★☆)Just slightly woody. Otherwise, a solid good oolong.
China Oolong Buddha’s Palm (★★☆☆☆)Too smoky.
Osmanthus Oolong Se Chung (★★★★☆)
It’s a solid oolong, but the floral taste (I don’t know how to describe the osmanthus flavor) really makes this for me. I like to mix a little of it into some of my other oolongs, though it’s not the best re-steeper I’ve ever had.This was my default oolong for a long time because 500g was just $18. One of the downsides of buying in such bulk is that the osmanthus fragments exhibited a Brazil nut effect and the last hundred cups were more osmanthus than tea.
Fen Huan Dan Cong (★★☆☆☆)The description promises a strong flavor, but perhaps I prepared it poorly because the flavor struck me as weak, nor did I particularly notice any peach. I was disappointed; I’d’ve been better off buying some more of the Osmanthus or 1st-grade Imperial.
Season’s Pick Tie-Guan-Yin #132 (★★★☆☆)A solid oolong somewhere between the Second and First Grade oolongs
Fancy Oolong Imperial (★★★★☆)Very good; similar to the First Grade Imperial oolong.
Benshan (★★★★☆)I bought this and the roasted barley tea (see later) from the Rainbow Grocery Cooperative when I was visiting my sister in San Francisco. Benshan is a fairly green oolong and right up my alley, although it struck me as lacking the slight sweetness and floral overtones I expect from the best oolongs. But regardless, it was pretty tasty, and adding a little bit of the barley made the benshan oolong even better.
Iron Buddha from Teavana (★★★☆☆)Standard oolong; nothing memorable.
- Oolong Fine Grade (★★★☆☆); standard oolong
- Formosa Amber Oolong (★★☆☆☆); too black-tea-like
- Formosa Jade Oolong (★★★☆☆ / ★★★★☆); quite tasty, in the same vein as the First and Second Grade oolongs (although obviously not as good)
- China Oolong Se Chung (★★☆☆☆); just as described - too woody for me
Ruan Zhi Thai (★★★☆☆)I didn’t expect much of a Thai tea, since I’ve never heard of oolongs from Thailand before. To a little surprise, I found it to be a completely normal oolong. Nothing floral to the taste, just a plain ordinary oolong. I would not have suspected you of lying if you had told me it was a Formosan oolong.
Tie-Guan-Yin Special Tribute (★★★☆☆)Rolled leaf-balls. Similar to the Oolong Fine Grade; but has a somewhat mysterious floral taste I can’t really compare to anything. Doesn’t seem to re-steep very well.
Wuyi Golden Guan Yin (★★☆☆☆)Loosely rolled long leaves; weak flavor with nothing of interest about it. (I’ll agree with the Upton’s description that it’s not bitter, but calling it
sweetor having a
raisin-likeflavor is just hyperbole.) Disappointing.
Floral Jinxuan (★★★☆☆)At first, I thought this was ordinary, but upon resteeping I noticed the promised floral notes - they reminded me strongly of the osmanthus oolong.
Formosa Oolong Spring Dragon (★★★☆☆)Like the Special Tribute, but weaker in flavor, I think.
It’s not very good oolong. It starts off fairly bitter and doesn’t improve, but at least it doesn’t get too horrible as it resteeps. Regardless, I don’t know where I would get more and I would not get more if I knew.
Tea at the Empress(★★☆☆☆); I picked up this dark blue cylindrical tin of teabags somewhere or other. It doesn’t even specify what kind of tea it is, but apparently it has something to do with a hotel, and claims to be from
The Fairmont Store(although no item is listed similar to the tin).
Empress Guei-Fei Oolong (★★★☆☆)At 5 minutes of steeping, a pretty ordinary oolong; by 10 minutes, a strong floral taste had developed. Continued steeping made the flavor weaker and bitterer (as one would expect), but no other changes. It reminded me of the osmanthus oolong. During the second tasting, the floral flavor was not as overpowering; I was careful to use the same tsp amount of tea for each of the 9 teas, which suggests that perhaps last time I used too much of the Empress. Not bad at all, I may order it again.
Oolong Choice Grade (★★★★☆)At 5 minutes, another ordinary oolong, but by 10 minutes, the flavor has not become bitter but rather continued to develop into a very oolong flavor. Little change with re-steepings. In the second tasting, I noted that it was
a sharper blacker flavor than Anxi and Empress. A good oolong, might be a candidate for my
standardtea (but would need to check prices of the others).
Formosa Oolong Choicest (★★☆☆☆)The 5 minute steeping tasted both woody and floral, an odd combination which bothered me (I had expected more - it cost twice what the Oolong Choice Grade did). The 10 minute steeping wasn’t much better: it was sweeter tasting, but the stem/wood flavor was even stronger, and it didn’t improve or change very much at any subsequent steeping. It’s possible I prepared it wrong or picked a pinch of stems, but it seems unlikely I will pay the premium for this tea when I am not sure I can even describe it as
good. (In the second tasting, I noted only that it was
Another gift from my sister. This is a mild medium oolong with relatively little floral taste compared to everything else I’ve been testing. As expected from the Anxi county tea region, their Tie-Guan-Yin is perfectly acceptable.
As the name indicates, this is a peach-flavored oolong. I bought a bag of 10 teabags during Sakura Matsuri 2012. I wondered if $12 was too much to pay, but the bag seemed oddly heavy and the back said each bag had 2g of tea in them! 2 grams is a lot, and 20g is more reasonable for $12 - similar to Upton’s samples when S&H is included. (When I checked online, I saw the loose tea was $13 for 50g. Oh well.)The bags were the first I’ve seen made with a plastic mesh, and when I brewed the first one, the taste was far too strong. It was without doubt peach-flavored. For the next batches, I cut open the bag and used a fourth of the contents. This made a much more reasonable flavor, which holds up well under resteeping, and the peach-flavor is not as artificial-tasting as the other peach tea I have now. One thing I’ve learned after drinking many mugs is that this tea quickly becomes flavorless - it doesn’t hold up under resteeping; this may be because it was designed for quick release as tea bags - but hopefully the loose tea is unshredded leaves and this would be less of a problem. When I run out of tea, I may order a batch of Lupicia since besides the Momo Oolong, they have some oolongs I haven’t tried before.
Super Fancy Oolong (★☆☆☆☆)Indescribable taste, but whatever it is, makes it bad.
Roasted Oolong (★★★☆☆)Pretty much as expected: a standard oolong taste with a smoky aftertaste. Smoky oolongs are not my cup of tea, but I had to try. The upside is that it turns out to resteep very well, and the smoky aftertaste slowly changes to a sweeter honey-like aftertaste.
Magnolia Blossom Oolong (★★★☆☆)The magnolia flavor is strong with this one. I was surprised to instantly recognize the flavor, because as far as I knew I had never had anything magnolia-flavored before. The flavor itself leaves me mixed - I sort of like but also sort of don’t. This may be one of the teas best consumed only at intervals or mixed in with another. It doesn’t resteep well, almost immediately losing any flavor.
Pre-Chingming Da Hong Pao (★★☆☆☆)Floral and weak. More green-white than oolong.
Organic Da Hong Pao Oolong (★★☆☆☆)A stronger Pre-Chingming Da Hong Pao, which then undercuts the improvement by tacking on an aftertaste which is not smoky but burnt. In general, this batch of oolongs was a disappointment: either boring or bad. I may finally have exhausted Upton’s oolong catalog.
Ti Kuan Yin(★★★☆☆)
A perfectly ordinary and satisfactory oolong; it handles steeping well and delivers a cup medium between green and black. While I was at their Williamsburg shop, I had a cup of their
Glenburn Moonshine Oolong; it’s hard to judge from one cup you didn’t make, but while the leaves have a lovely silver fuzz and the brew was pretty good, I didn’t like it sufficiently to justify the 2-3x premium over the tie kuan yin.
- Williamsburg gunpowder; rather grassy, the tightly rolled gunpowder seems to easily oversteep. (★★☆☆☆)
Xian Shan Pouchong (★★★☆☆)Rolled green tea; strongly reminiscent of oolongs and definitely on the border. Fairly good considered as a green/oolong cross, but nothing memorable about the flavor - similar to Oolong Fine Grade.
Green Tea Pomegranate, English Tea Shop (★☆☆☆☆)
Satori Tea Company’s Sencha Klaus (★★☆☆☆)Gift from sister; a tin of variegated green (long thin leaves, stems, broken leaves) mixed with flakes of thin orange peel or skin. As the name indicates, it’s a Christmas-style tea which makes it taste like potpourri. The flavor is interesting; after the first few minutes, it struck me as a sweeter kind of green but I can’t figure out the flavor - minty? Floral? Some sort of citrus orange? After another 5 minutes, it’s much stronger and I feel confident identifying it as an orange flavor. It’s strong enough that I don’t think I want to drink it on its own, but perhaps I could mix in the Dae-Jak. (Satori’s description identifies the contents:
almond bits, cinnamon bits, natural flavor and orange blossoms. Makes sense.) I ultimately wound up picking out all the orange peel to make it more palatable.
sun dew apricot mangomix (★★★☆☆)
Purchased at ICON 2012; after losing the bidding war for the tea item, I resolved to go find the original vendor in the dealers’ room, which I succeeded in doing. To my surprise, they were primarily a steampunk clothing vendor who happened to have one shelf-unit of tea mixes. Mostly blacks and rooibos, but there was one green that smelled nice and I was piqued that I had lost the bidding war Saturday for the awesome original ICON artwork and then the bidding war Sunday for the 3 teas, and it was just $3 an ounce. I had a nice chat with the guy, and bought an ounce of the mango green tea.It has a pleasant green flavor with no real negatives, and the mango/apricot is not overwhelming. It degrades gracefully under resteeping. Overall, it’s quite good: better than most floral flavorings, above the peach tea (but below osmanthus oolong) in my estimation. Unfortunately, when I checked their website, they seem to offer no online shopping or long-distance ordering capability. I guess I will have to wait for ICON 2013 to buy some more.
Choice Organic Tea’s Twig Ku-ki cha (★★★☆☆ / ★★★★☆)This was a random try of a tea bag, and I was a little dubious -
twig kukichadoesn’t sound very promising, and
twiggyis usually a bad adjective coming from me. But the first steep turned out to be fairly good, as did the second steep. The Wikipedia description of it as
mildly nuttyand slightly
sweetturns out to be on the money; it also reminded me of genmai-cha. There was only one tea bag, so my first impression will remain limited, but I think I will try some kukichas in the future. (Upton’s stocks 3 Japanese kukichas and 1 Chinese.)
Stash Premium, Mangosteen Green Tea (★☆☆☆☆)A disappointment. Not a good green, and the mangosteen just tasted too sweet. I didn’t bother with a second steep.
Davids Tea,Small sample packet - a sencha green with mango & mangosteen. Much better than the Stash Premium. It started off well, and handled resteeping admirably. Competitive with TeaAndAbsinthe’s
sun dew apricot mangomix, although a simpler overall flavor.
Gyokuro Kenjyo (★★★☆☆)At 1 minute, it’s a sharp tasting green which reminds me of a previous green tea I’ve had, but maddeningly, I can’t seem to place the specific aftertaste. At 5 minutes, the taste is stronger (but not more bitter or worse).
Pre-Chingming Snow Dragon (★☆☆☆☆)At 1 and 5 minutes, this is almost tasteless. I’d liken it to a white tea, which it may well be better classified as. I’d call it bad, but that implied there was any real flavor to dislike.
Kagoshima Kabuse Sencha (★★★☆☆)A ordinary sencha, the only thing I’d note is the slight floral note. Handles resteeping well.
Organic China Ku-ki Cha (★★★★☆)To my sorrow, this was the only ku-ki tea Upton’s had in stock when I ordered this batch, and not the one I was most interested in (the roasted ku-ki cha). This may be a continuing effect from the Fukushima incident which cut off many rarer Japanese teas. Regardless, I like it. It has a sort of hybrid green-oolong taste, but with a nutty or roasted-barley overtone. (The only downside was that I drink my teas without a strainer or teaball, and the stems & twigs all float!) This suggests that the one packet I tried before was not an aberration; if Upton’s doesn’t have any more when next I order, I’ll probably look for another retailer which does have some.
Genmai-cha Green Tea with Roasted Brown Rice16-pack (★★★☆☆)
Picked up at my grocery store for $2 out of curiosity. As the instructions warn you, this green doesn’t handle resteeping very well and turns bitter after a few minutes. The roasted brown rice flavor is very strong and one can smell it upon opening a teabag packet. The green tea itself is acceptable. The combination is not bad, but I think the rice is over-toasted and comes off as a bit too burnt. The lesson here may be to find my own source of more lightly toasted brown rice.
Dae-Jak (★★☆☆☆)After 5 minutes, struck me as rather grassy, akin to gyokuro, but with a weaker flavor. By 10 minutes, it was still grassy but a certain unpleasant edge had crept in, which was still there after the resteep. Not impressed. During the second-tasting, the unpleasant edge was weaker than I remembered, but otherwise both the Dae-Jak and Jung-Jak tasted the same.
Very similar to the Dae-Jak, but less sweet (when tasting them side by side); the sweetness passed Dae-Jak at 10 minutes, and at 15 minutes, I wasn’t noticing the unpleasant edge. Better than the Dae-Jak, but I still doubt I’ll be ordering it again.
Special Grade Shou Mei (★★☆☆☆)Fairly twiggy (little in the way of leaves proper). Very white - tasted like a weak green with a certain floral overtone. In its favor, it handled re-steeping very well, not becoming bitter even slightly & tasting the same over multiple cups.
Organic Pai Mu Tan (★★★☆☆)The Pai Mu Tan tasted like the Shou Mei or Yin Zhen Bai Hao, but much more so, and so gets more approval from me; probably won’t buy it again, though. (I don’t actually dislike the general white tea flavor, it’s just usually far too weak to be worth drinking.)
downy- the leaves & branches are downright fuzzy. However, it tastes almost identical to the Shou Mei.
Peach Momotaro (★★☆☆☆)
A gift from the littler sister. I was quite amused at the title - a clear allusion to Japanese folktale Momotarō (literally
Peach Boy). I didn’t have much hope for this flowering tea, but it improved on my expectations: the bloomed tea ball was a lovely white stalk on a grassy green base, and the peach flavor was respectable and comparable to the other peach tea I have. Flavor-wise, the tea was pretty weak (I was under the impression it was either a green or oolong tea) and overpowered by the peach, but at least it had a flavor and so was better than the previous flowering teas. It improved a little bit by the 10 minute mark, having sweetened a little. The weak tea flavor was explained when I learned it was a white tea; such a flavor is pretty par for the course for whites.
I am not a fan of black teas, but I still try them out occasionally:
It is a black tea mixed with
Ginger Peach Tea, bag-tea by English Tea Shop (★★☆☆☆)
ginger pieces and peach flavor. To my surprise, it was fairly good. The black tea is a pretty weak black and as far as I can tell, towards the oolong end of the spectrum. The peach flavor is entirely dominant over the ginger, which is as I would prefer, peach being an old favorite of mine. The first steep is good, but it falls off very quickly and needs replacing by the fourth steep or so.
Satori Tea Company’s Amali African Queen (★★★☆☆)
Another gift; this one confused me because it was clearly labeled oolong, but when I tried it out, it tasted very much like a black tea and the leaves were pretty oxidized and produced a black-tea-looking liquor (extremely dark as opposed to amber), and quickly began thinking of Earl Grey. My confusion was resolved when I began to look up the teas and found that the African Queen was in fact a black tea (as opposed to a peculiarly black oolong).
Tisanes are any
tea which does not incorporate Camellia sinensis - so this category includes barley tea or mint tea or
red tea (rooibos) or honeybush. (I once ordered rooibos & honeybush from Upton’s for my mother; I found them so unmemorable I can’t even review them here.)
Roasted barley tea (★★☆☆☆)Like the Benshan oolong, bought from Rainbow Grocery Cooperative. I was initially going to only buy some genmaicha but then I saw their oolongs, so I went with plain roasted barley instead and combined it. The barley was very… nutty and barley-ish on its own. Not entirely drinkable, I thought, although it added some strength and robustness to the Benshan oolong in small amounts.
Ginger herbal tea (★☆☆☆☆)This Royal King product was, as it promised, gingery. I’d have to say I don’t actually like the flavor of ginger that much, and couldn’t drink it very often.
- Rote Grütze (★☆☆☆☆): disgustingly sweet and fruity (
accented with dried blackcurrants, blueberries, strawberries and wild cherriesis an understatement). The best I can liken it to is drinking one of those potpourri or stuffed pomegranates old women buy. It initially seemed to re-steep well but I realized it was somehow ineffably becoming more and more offputting with each steep. I can’t see it really motivates me to try any more kinds of rooibos.
- Superior Organic (★★☆☆☆): much better than the Rote Grütze, with just the right amount of sweetness.
- Rote Grütze (★☆☆☆☆): disgustingly sweet and fruity (
Honeybush: honeybush vanilla (★★☆☆☆) reminded me a little of rooibos (though different species entirely), but much toned down, sweet like its name suggests, and the vanilla combined nicely. I actually liked it a little. Good for occasional breaks or when I want something hot to drink but caffeine would be a bad idea (eg. past 7 PM).
Looking through my history, I order tea on a roughly annual or semi-annual basis:
- 10/16/2006 ($19.30)
- 12/17/2007 ($19.70)
- 1/8/2008 ($43.80)
- 2/15/2010 ($34.92)
- 7/5/2010 ($32.30)
- 5/14/2011 ($51.20)
- 12/4/2011 ($39.20)
- 7/15/2012 ($75.10)
Thinking back, the 2 year gap between orders #3 and #4 was probably due to a Christmas where I received more than 2 pounds of tea, which took me a very long time to drink.↩
Which is pretty unusual for me. On the other hand, in ages past, back when I was on the
rec.food.drink.teaUsenet group, a fair number of other people also ordered from Upton.↩
How does an electric tea kettle differ from ordinary electric kettles? Principally they have temperature settings - a little knob to choose between temperatures for black, oolong, green, and white tea. The less oxidized the tea, the cooler the water should be - white tea water should be dozens of degrees cooler than black tea water.↩