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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.

Tea

Oolong

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 of ‘woody’ taste to it that the first doesn’t.)

    On 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.
  • 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 ‘burnt’ tasting!
  • 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 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.
  • Superior Competition Tie-Guan-Yin (★★★★☆)

    Very good oolong. Comparable to the First and Second grade Imperial oolongs, without doubt.
  • China Oolong Organic Eastern Beauty (★★☆☆☆)

    A disappointment; nothing special - the subtle notes are too subtle for me.
  • 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 ‘sweet’ or having a ‘raisin-like’ flavor 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.
  • “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).

    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.
  • 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 ‘standard’ tea (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 ‘slightly sour’.)
  • “Anxi tikwanyin” (★★★☆☆)

    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.
  • “Momo Oolong Super Grade”, Lupicia Fresh Tea (★★★☆☆ / ★★★★☆)

    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.
  • Tie-Guan-Yin Oolong Special Grade (★★☆☆☆)

    Floral, but oddly it also tasted sour. Not recommended, to say the least, but perhaps the first tasting was simply an aberrant cup. On later tastings, I didn’t notice further sourness, and it seemed more acceptable. Dosing is difficult because the large whole leaves are very tightly wrapped but sometimes are just stems, so it is easy to add too few or too many.
  • Tie-Guan-Yin Vintage Style, Floral Tie-Guan-Yin Superior (★★★☆☆)

    Neither left a strong enough impression to review although the Floral Superior lived up to at least the first part of the name; they were both similar to the Special Grade. At times during this tasting, I wondered if Upton had screwed up & they were the same teas (but they couldn’t’ve been because the tea leaves were visibly different). The Floral Superior does not handle resteeping well, quickly losing flavor.
  • 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.
  • Revolution “Dragon Eye Oolong Tea: 16 single cup Infusers” (★★★☆☆)

    A Christmas gift, this flavored oolong comes in the nice little plastic mesh bags that non-loose-tea products seem to be moving towards these days. The Se Chung and Shui Xian blend is heavily flavored with safflower, peach, and apricot for a somewhat overwhelmingly floral taste which makes it hard to judge the underlying oolong (it seems OK, but not great). Seems to handle a few resteeps well.
  • Discover Tea’s “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.
  • Spice & Tea Exchange, Coconut Oolong (★★★☆☆)

    Bao Zhong oolong with coconut extract. I am not a fan of coconut flavor and bought it out of curiosity when I wandered into their Williamsburg shop before Christmas 2013 (I also bought an ounce of their genmai-cha). It was better than I expected: the coconut is a light overlay and not overpowering, and the base Bao Zhong seems to be fine.
  • Tao of Tea, “Green Dragon Oolong Tea” (★★★★☆)

    Solid oolong, much like a tieguanyin with the floral after-taste I love so much in oolongs. Resteeps normally without becoming too bitter.
  • Tao of Tea, “Black Dragon Oolong Tea” (★★★☆☆)

    A black tea in all but name; very similar to the Amali African Queen. Steeps perhaps twice. Didn’t much enjoy, but not as bitter & unpleasant as most black teas.
  • Tea’s Etc, “Ginseng Loose Leaf Oolong Tea” (★★★☆☆/★★★★☆)

    I hadn’t tried a ginseng tea before, and when this one popped up on Amazon, I thought I’d give it a try. While I strongly suspect the health benefits of ginseng have been overblown4, the flavor might still be nice. The tea comes in coated pellets, with some wisps of straw-colored plant matter which I assume are ginseng itself. The ginseng flavor is sweet, mild, fruity & difficult for me to compare to anything (I guess I should just describe it as ginseng-like!). I think I like it, although like the coconut oolong I wouldn’t want to drink too many cups in a row of it.
  • Daniel Clough, Golden Lily Wulong (★★★☆☆)

    1 of 4 oolongs gifted me by Clough after his travels in China. Interesting and not what I expected, since the tea looked more like a tieguanyin. The Golden Lily almost doesn’t taste like an oolong at all: it tastes sweet, perhaps like honey?, and something harder to describe - googling, it seems the usual description is milky, which on further reflection seems like it’s a good analogy.
  • Clough, Lan Gui Ren ginseng (★★☆☆☆)

    A ginseng oolong like the previous Tea’s Etc; there’s no ‘straw’ in it, and the coated pellets are much smaller, although unlike the other, the pellets do open up into tea leaves. Weakly ginseng, sweeter, and almost completely tasteless after the first steep. This one was a disappointment; I hope the other ginseng turns out to be better.
  • Clough, unknown ginseng (★★★☆☆)

    A normal foil baggy of little ginseng pellets; no straw, small more irregular pellets, green color. Similar the Tea’s Etc one.
  • Clough, unknown oolong (★★★☆☆/★★★★☆)

    A vacuum-sealed small sample (10g?) of Chinese tea; I didn’t recognize any of the names or characters on it (I took a photo just in case it turned out to matter). The first steep is a fairly tasty quasi-tieguanyin, but subsequent steeps are absolutely tasteless, which meant I used it up quickly.
  • Tao of Tea, “Wu Yi Oolong Tea” (★★★☆☆)

    Very similar to Tao of Tea’s “Black Dragon Oolong Tea”, which I didn’t much like either, but is better than the usual black.
  • Summit Tea Company, “Tie Guan Yin Oolong Tea” (★★★☆☆)

    Medium oolong, somewhat floral, survives only one steep, not terrible but fairly weak flavor. Tie Guan Yin on a budget: I’m not sure if one can do better for cheaper, but one could easily do better.
  • Art of Tea, “Iron Goddess of Mercy Oolong Tea” (★★★★☆)

    Reasonable Tie Guan Yin, very green, nice floral aftertaste; sensitive to temperature, though, and easily prepared too hot. Probably can do better quality vs price-wise. Container is a bit flimsy and if it falls to the ground, will spill contents all over (as I found out the hard way).
  • Tao of Tea’s “Royal Phoenix Oolong Tea” ()

    Toasty texture, fragrant aroma and sweet, high-bounce taste similar to nectarines and peaches. Origin is Guangdong Province, China

    No reviews, but I thought the description sounded promising and Tao of Tea has earned a little bit of trust, so I took a gamble with it.

Green

  • Williamsburg pinhead gunpowder (★★☆☆☆)

    Pinhead Gunpowder is a green Chinese tea. Pale straw colored, the brew is light and refreshing in flavor. Each leaf is hand-rolled into a pellet-shaped ball. Because the tightly rolled shape helps the tea retain its freshness, it was one of the first teas to be exported from China. 1/4 lb. Loose Tea, No.42316

    I originally bought a packet on a trip to Colonial Williamsburg around 2005 or so. It struck me as rather grassy and the tightly-rolled leaves seemed to easily oversteep and become bitter. Having received another batch in Christmas 2013 and preparing it with more respect for being a green tea (sub-boiling water, much shorter steep time), I find it more palatable and so I think my early impressions may have been more my fault than the tea’s fault.
  • 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.
  • TeaAndAbsinthe’s “sun dew apricot mango” mix (★★★☆☆)

    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 kukicha” doesn’t sound very promising, and “twiggy” is 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 nutty” and slightly “sweet” turns 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, “Daydreamer” (★★★☆☆)

    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 mango” mix, 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 tea ball, 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.
  • Yamamotoyama’s “Genmai-cha Green Tea with Roasted Brown Rice” 16-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.
  • Spice & Tea Exchange, Genmaicha (★★★☆☆)

    This improves on the Yamamotoyama. The rice is toasted much more lightly. I liked it, especially for drinking in the morning, although it doesn’t handle resteeps well and tastes a bit burned. I think genmai-cha can probably be even better, though.
  • Tao of Tea, “Genmaicha Green Tea And Toasted Rice” (★★☆☆☆)

    Devoid of the toasted-rice flavor - there’s grains of rice, yes, but it’s hard to believe they were ever toasted. It doesn’t taste nearly as good as the other two genmai-chas, and was a waste of money since it’s not that great a green tea on its own.

Korean greens:

  • 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.
  • Jung-Jak (★★☆☆☆)

    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.

White

  • 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.)
  • China Yin Zhen Bai Hao Downy White Pekoe (★★☆☆☆)

    As promised, the pekoe is indeed ‘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 amused at the clever title - an allusion to the Japanese folktale Momotarō (literally “Peach Tarō” or “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.

Black

I am not a fan of black teas, but I still try them out occasionally:

  • “Ginger Peach Tea”, bag-tea by English Tea Shop (★★☆☆☆)

    It is a black tea mixed with ‘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).
  • Upton’s “Traditional Masala Chai” (★★☆☆☆)

    “A traditional Indian spiced tea recipe with a warm and robust character. The full flavor notes of cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and clove hold up to milk and honey, the traditional way to take this tea.” Christmas gift. Tastes like the description, and does indeed taste better with some milk & honey added.

Pu’erh

I have tried pu’erh tea from time to time, Without exception of brand or preparation method, I have not liked them.

Tisane

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.
  • Rooibos:

    • Rote Grütze (★☆☆☆☆): disgustingly sweet and fruity (“accented with dried blackcurrants, blueberries, strawberries and wild cherries” is 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.
  • 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).
  • Maracuja/Orange Fruit Tea (★★★☆☆)

    Contains fruit pieces, rose hips, hibiscus flowers, citrus peel and flavoring. Ingredients: apple bits, hibiscus, rose hip peels, beetroot bits, orange bits, citrus peels, artificial flavor

    A strongly-flavored, tangerine-like herbal tea.
  • Cape Cod Cranberry Fruit Tea (★★★☆☆)

    A special blend of dried cranberries, hibiscus and apple bits. Caffeine free and delicious. Ingredients: apple bits, hibiscus, cranberries (cranberries, sugar, sunflower oil), artificial flavor

    Despite the differing ingredient list, tastes very similar to the Maracuja. The cranberries add their own kick to the orange-like flavor. I noticed I could eat it straight out of the bag like it were trail-mix.
  • Lemon Myrtle (★★☆☆☆)

    Grown in the sub-tropical rainforests of Queensland, Australia, Lemon Myrtle (Backhousia citriodora) is a relatively new caffeine-free tisane. It is a natural source of citral essential oils, antioxidants which imparts a stout lemony aroma and flavor.

    Overwhelmingly sweet and lemon-tasting; lemon, lemon, and more lemon. A little goes a long way. I ultimately found it too much of a muchness, and couldn’t finish it.
  • Mulberry tea / Kuwa-cha: apparently mulberry tree leaves make a decent sencha-like powdered tea; an acquaintance described it as being like a good green tea. As it happens, I have a longstanding fondness for mulberries. Unfortunately, though mulberry trees are not rare trees (there were several growing wild within blocks of where I grew up), the prices are not as cheap as one would hope; apparently there’s a fad diet cluttering listings & driving up prices. Anyway, out of curiosity I ordered 45g of $12 mulberry tea (★★☆☆☆/★★★☆☆) from Kesennuma (grown in Miyagi Prefecture).

    It is a nice slightly-dark green, shredded finely like confetti, and reminds me a bit of how sencha green tea looks; the smell is faint and the best my impoverished scent vocabulary can come up with is “a bit musty”. Steeped, the water is also a nice green; my first impression of the taste is that it’s slightly sweet. Beyond that… it tastes perhaps like a white or green would if one removed all hint of bitterness and grass ie. there’s not much of a flavor beyond the slight sweetness. The directions suggest preparing with hot water, but the mulberry tea tastes much the same prepared with cold or cool water and the flavor is easier to taste without heat in the way. (You can make iced tea with it, but I don’t advise brewing for more than a week - it seems to gain an offputting aftertaste after that.)

    Do I like it? Well, I don’t dislike it but a very inoffensive green tea isn’t something I have a pressing need for. I think it would make a decent summer tea since you could prepare & serve it cold, but I like barley tea and genmai-cha better, so I don’t need a mulberry tea. Still, interesting to try out - who knew mulberry leaves could be used to make an OK tea?

Tea kettles

Besides the teas themselves, kettles are key equipment. An occasional drinker may use a stove-top kettle, which have advantages:

  • cheap or free
  • nearly-indestructible
  • simple to operate
  • compact
  • picturesque
  • always ceramic or metal, so no worries about the water tasting like plastic

Stove-top kettles come with disadvantages compared to electric kettles, which cause heavy drinkers problems:

  • they are slow to heat compared to electric kettles (even in the USA)
  • they are energy-inefficient: much of the heat of the stovetop is not transferred into the water but the air, which is a waste of electricity or gas, and during summer will unpleasantly warm the house
  • picturesque means that they are not always designed with safety or ergonomics in mind; I’ve seen more than a few which bade fair to burn users somewhile
  • temperature control is difficult without a thermometer, so one must either compromise the simplicity & convenience of a stove-top kettle or risk destroying white/green/oolong teas by overheating the water
  • it’s often easy to not notice when the water has reached a boil, or to not be present when the kettle does begin to whistle; this results in de-oxygenating the water and poses a safety hazard if the kettle boils dry

On the downside, the electric kettles lose most of the stove-top kettle advantages (they cost real money, can break, take up counter space, and the pretty ones are more expensive). But on net, I prefer an expensive electric tea kettle which will heat fast, not dump excess heat into the room, has boil-dry protection, and different heat settings.

I bought my first electric tea kettle on 7 January 2008 from Upton’s. It was their (since-discontinued) AK16 model (“Upton Tea Imports® Variable Temp. Electric Kettle”), and cost $43.80. Besides my daily tea, I used it for heating water for ramen, speeding up cooking of soups & stews, humidifying rooms, and unclogging drains. It worked well for years until the handle snapped off somewhere in winter 2013 or so. (It was my fault: I had been using it to humidify the room and had placed a book on the handle to keep the kettle boiling past the temperature shut-off.) This wasn’t a fatal problem because it was easy to take a small screwdriver and wiggle the switch inside the base. The kettle finally broke fully on 19 January 2014, having given me ~2203 days of loyal service at 2¢ a day (ignoring the electricity consumption). I would have bought it again except Upton’s no longer sold it or a replacement electric tea kettle; their website noes “New kettle sources are being evaluated.”

I made do with a stove-top kettle laying around, but eventually the hassle of waiting twice or thrice as long, occasionally burning a green/oolong, and the upcoming hot summer spurred me to buy another. I had an unused Target gift card, so on 15 April 2014, I spent $36.04 to buy an “Oster Digital Electric Tea Kettle model BVST-EK5967” from Target; it was the only electric tea kettle they had in stock with temperature control. I liked the digital temperature control (the Upton’s was an analogue knob with tea ranges), and it worked well. My main complaint was that the digital control would forget the previous temperature setting after use, and would reset to 212° so one had to set the temperature every use. By 20 May 2014, after 35 days, it had broken: it would turn on, but the water would never get hot. I thought perhaps it was a loose connection but a great deal of wiggling & experimenting failed to help matters, and I noticed the inside of the base seemed partially melted - so perhaps it couldn’t withstand its own heat? Target’s return policy didn’t seem to allow a return, so I had to give up. Much too late, I checked the Amazon page for the Oster BVST-EK5967 and saw that I was far from alone in having a bad experience with BVST-EK5967s dying unreasonably early. Oh well!

Having learned my lessons about ignoring user reviews, this third time I’m going with one of the top-reviewed electric tea kettles with temperature control on Amazon: the “T-fal BF6138US Balanced Living 1-Liter 1750-Watt Electric Mini Kettle” ($23.62). Unfortunately for me, my first order arrived broken. Reasoning that since it’s one of the top-reviewed models, it’s more likely that I got a bad item than it’s a rubbish model like the Oster, I decided to return it for a replacement (which Amazon makes reasonably easy: you print out an address and a bar code, slap it on the shipping box, and mail it at your local post office). The second order arrived working, and aside from the garish green-black coloring, seems to do its job well (although I miss the built-in thermometer of the Oster, which made it easier to findi optimal temperatures for particular teas).

TODO

Taste-testing 9 teas side by side
Taste-testing 9 teas side by side

  1. Looking through my history, I order tea on a roughly annual or semi-annual basis:

    1. 10/16/2006 ($19.30)
    2. 12/17/2007 ($19.70)
    3. 1/8/2008 ($43.80)
    4. 2/15/2010 ($34.92)
    5. 7/5/2010 ($32.30)
    6. 5/14/2011 ($51.20)
    7. 12/4/2011 ($39.20)
    8. 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.

  2. Which is pretty unusual for me. On the other hand, in ages past, back when I was on the rec.food.drink.tea Usenet group, a fair number of other people also ordered from Upton.

  3. 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.

  4. Much of the research is of poor quality and from East Asia & China in particular, which is always a red flag for anything to do with traditional Asian treatments; reviews/meta-analyses, like the Cochrane reviews on Shengmai (a traditional Chinese herbal medicine) for heart failure” & “Ginseng for cognition” typically find few high-quality studies & small inconsistent benefits.