Sunday, 26 September 2010

A nice surpise

I have really cool friends. My friend Charlotte recently got back from a trip the US and mentioned that she'd brought me back a small present from Disneyland. Now, I am a massive Alice fan and so figured it would be something related to this. I never even figured that there might be Alice tea! There have been a couple of varieties of 'Wonderland' tea I've been aware of, but I didn't realise Disney had their own version.

Anyway, I was given a little box of Blueberry green tea (there are eight bags per box) and, admittedly with some trepidation, brewed a cup. I'm guessing it's probably a China green tea, due to the very light colour. The instructions said to boil for 2-3 minutes in boiling water. I ignored the instructions.

The taste is actually really very nice, a little synthetic perhaps (as you might expect from a company not really used to selling tea), but very fruity and actually tastes of blueberries. An enjoyable cup of tea for any unbirthday party.

My two wishes for this tea: a) that it was easily available to buy online and b) that there were more than 8 teabags in each box. Oh well.

Interview: Richard Grey, Grey's Teas

Grey's Teas supply a wide range of exotic and had-to-get teas on their website, which has been trading for ten years. Richard himself is descended from the family of Earl Grey himself, an excellent pedigree for a tea merchant if ever there was one!

1) How did you first become involved in the tea industry?

I worked in a market research company on the Lyons Tetley account. I worked for Whittards in one of their first shops between jobs. I travelled to Darjeeling and Yunnan Province, China.

2) What is your favourite variety of tea a) to work with and b) to drink?

I love working with Oolongs - great variety, ancient history, fabulous legends and grown in magical far flung corners of China To drink, it depends on the time of day. Mornings: Ceylon Dimbulas especially Vinaka - I look forward to their robust body yet uplifting floral aromas. Afternoons: Keemuns especially Jhin Hao - I love their depth of taste, good body and winey character. Late: light delicate white teas especially Dragonwell - I find their gentle buttery tastes exotic and refreshing.

3) Where do you think the best tea comes from (e.g. Japan, Sri Lanka) and why do you think that?

Anhui Province, China - they have been producing wonderful teas there by hand for centuries.

4) Where do you get your inspiration for more 'unusual' blends?

The unique character of the key constituent teas such as oolong in Russian Caravan or Lapsang Souchong in our Good Afternoon blend.

5) Why do you think it is important that people experience good quality teas?

So that they can experience the distinctive characters of the fabulous teas available.

6) Why do you think independent blenders and tea merchants have been gaining popularity in the last few years?

They have been prepared to make little known teas available often where there is no proven market of any size. The internet has helped provide information on these teas to a wider audience and appeal to a more geographically dispersed market.

7) If you could have any five people at a tea party, who would they be and what would you serve them?

Alan Rickman, my favourite 'evil' actor - something mysterious such as Goddess of Mercy Oolong; Matthew Pinsent who as a fellow ex rower I very much admire and comes over well on television - a good robust Assam such as Mangalam, excellent when rising early for rowing practice!; Jerry Robinson, a very human and likeable businessman with immense experience who I like listening to - a good keemun that Britain has been trading with China for centuries such as Mao Feng; Robert Harris, an author whose books such as Enigma and Pompeii I very much enjoy with good characterisation and excellent historical research - I would like his response to our smoky Lapsang Souchong Falcon; Helen Bonham Carter, a brilliant and beautiful actress that is not afraid to look awful for character film roles, a top Darjeeling 1st Flush that would befit her renown costume drama roles such as Margaret's Hope.

8) Where do you predict tea businesses (and tea itself) heading in the next few years?

Tea will become increasingly appreciated for its diversity of taste and its health benefits as a natural drink. Our business will become increasingly known as an online speciality tea retailer and our choice of less well known teas will further grow. We may further develop our wholesale tea supply.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Interesting teas: Lapsang Souchong

When I was little, I always thought that Lapsang Souchong sounded mysterious (a teacher at school used to drink it) I remember its smoky smell and thinking it strange that she didn't drink tea with milk.

I wanted to try it as part of my 'Interesting Teas' series and was kindly sent a sample from Cup of Tea (Tarry Lapsang Souchong). The tea itself is sometimes known as Russian Caravan, which describes the long journey it had to take in the days before reliable trade routes. It's also referred to in quite a few books from early last century (The Age of Innocence is one of them), as it was fashionable to drink in certain areas of society.

It's interesting to note how smells can take you back; the smoky, almost tobacco-like smell reminded me of rainy playtimes at school. It's an interesting smell and one that would seem alien to some Western tea drinkers. The scent is achieved by drying the tea over burning pine wood, or, as in the case of Tarry Lapsang Souchong, over burning pine resin which leads to a stronger smell.

The taste of the Lapsang Souchong is, despite the smell, surprisingly strong. The taste of the black tea washes over the mouth, almost instantly followed by the smoky taste. The flavour itself is difficult to describe, but it's very autumnal- the taste and the smell remind me of bonfires and warmth. It's definitely an acquired taste and probably not one for me, but just as this tea produces strong dislike for some people, there are others that adore it. Horses for courses, I guess!

Friday, 17 September 2010

Earl Grey taste challenge- day 16

I've had a break from the Earl Grey challenge of late, but what with the weather becoming cooler and the nights drawing in, I've turned my evening attentions back to the delights of black tea with a dash of milk. Today's tea is Teapigs Darjeeling Earl Grey, which, to my delight, has a lovely picture of a daschund on the packet (I'm a big dog fan).

The wonderful thing about Teapigs is that they have their 'tea temples', which are more like posh tea pyramids than dodgy old tea bags. This enables the tea leaves to move around and 'breathe', ensuring that the best brew possible is achieved.

In this Earl Grey, Teapigs have used a fine darjeeling tea (as opposed to the Chinese tea that is often found in your usual tea bag), which lends subtlety and a nice base for the bergamot zing to shine through. The taste is light and refreshing, which is what I imagine Teapigs were aiming for. This is a nice, gentle tea, which I think would compliment breakfast or a quick lunch, rather than overwhelm with citrus, which, as mentioned in previous posts, some EGs do unintentionally.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Green Tea- a general (and fairly brief) overview

All of the teas mentioned in this article have been kindly provided by Grey's Teas and is a selection of their best selling green teas. If you have any suggestions of any other tea merchants or varieties I should try, please leave a comment or email me

It is said that the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung first discovered tea when a leaf from the tea plant drifted into some boiling water. In reality, tea probably first migrated from India to China some 1800 years ago. Until relatively recently, green tea was an exotic beverage only drunk by those who travelled to the Far East. It was shrouded in mystery and ritual, revered and highly regarded. Even now, tea ceremonies in Japan draw tourists. Green tea still needs special attention and care given to its preparation in order to produce the best results- over-boiling damages the leaves and thus the taste of the tea.

Green tea has become more widely drunk in the West in the last few years and many people will buy it because of the very real health benefits reported in the media. The problem with green tea becoming a ‘trend’ is that many people have bought low-quality teas and been confronted with a bitter, unpleasant brew. People who only drink green tea for health benefits are missing out on an exciting range of flavours; excellent tea is becoming as highly sought after as fine wines.

Thankfully, however, a range of tea merchants have begun exploring new avenues of green tea and as a result have produced a variety of delicious grades and flavours, each one unique. For example, Grey’s Teas carry interesting teas from the Darjeeling area of India, the Zhejang Province in China and two of the most highly sought after Japanese teas. Each variety has its own unique character.

China exports 80% of the world’s green tea and Chinese green tea is perhaps my favourite of the three varieties. It is the mildest of the three types, with both Pinhead Gunpowder and Tian Mu Quing Ding being excellent examples. Pinhead Gunpowder is the classic green tea from China. It is made of tightly rolled leaves and produces a pale yellow green tea, which is light and refreshing. As an introduction to green tea, this is perfect, as it is not too overpowering for the uninitiated.

Tian Mu Quing Ding produces a similar tea in looks, but in terms of taste, this one is light, summery and has a hint of delicate sweetness. Tian Mu Quing is highly prized, due to the fact that it is only picked for two weeks every year. This means that each cup is very, very special and should be savoured.

Japanese green teas usually have an attractive green colouration- more so than the Darjeeling and Chinese varieties. The teas I tried for this experiment are of the high quality that is expected in Japan, including the celebrated Sencha Gyokuro, also known as ‘Precious Dew’. This variety of tea is unusual, as the tea leaves are grown in the shade and picked early in the harvesting season. As a result, the tea itself has a full bodied, yet delicate taste. This is a also a tea for first thing in the morning, due to an unusually high caffeine content; perfect as a healthier alternative to the first coffee of the day.

Sencha is the most popular form of tea drunk in Japan (it is the powdered Matcha tea which is used in the traditional tea ceremonies) and the Japanese consume it as much as the British tend to drink their black tea with milk. Sencha Fukujyu tea is a refreshing, pale green tea with a refreshing, cleansing taste. Again, this is another tea that would be perfect as an introduction to the different varieties of green tea and a great one for people wanting a genuine Japanese experience.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Yumchaa Teas

Last week, Benn and I were in London to see a show (Avenue Q, if you're interested- very funny!) and on the way to the theatre, we came across a little street market. After wandering around, we came across Yumchaa Teas. I purchased three teas for £12- Notting Hill, a fruity, flowery black tea; Blueberry Hill, a black tea with rhubarb and blueberry; and Regent's Park, a yummy green tea with lots of interesting flavours.

Each one is hand blended, in small batches, meaning that they are fresh when they hit the packet. I've also now put each one in a Kilner jar to keep it fresh- an added bonus is that the teas are very pretty to look at too!

Unfortunately, Yumchaa's website appears to be down, but they do have a Twitter account. If you're in London for the day, do check out their teashops in either Soho or Camden, as all the reviews I've read make it sound fantastic! I will definitely pop in when I'm next up that way...

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Interview: Simon at Cup of Tea

Simon Collins is one of the brains behind the fantastic website Cup of Tea, a veritable treasure trove of exotic teas (keep your eyes peeled for the new 'tea travels around the world' starting on the blog in the next couple of days to get an idea of their fantastic range.)

1) How did you first become involved in the tea industry?

Christine, our MD worked for Ronnefeldt in Germany for many years. Ronnefeldt is a traditional tea business which specialises in supplying the very best teas to four and five star hotels and restaurants worldwide. Most people in Great Britain don’t realise that the Germans drink lots of fine teas and the average knowledge of tea there is far higher than in the UK. When Christine came to the UK in 2001 she became the UK distributor for Ronnefeldt and Cup of Tea was born. Since then Cup of Tea has grown to become very well established as an online and wholesale trade supplier of a huge range of quality teas.

2) What is your favourite variety of tea a) to work with and b) to drink

The tea we like to work with is Morning Dew. Because the majority of people here are only accustomed to tea with milk it’s a superb way to introduce people to green tea. It’s refreshing, tasty and easy to drink with no extremes of flavour or aroma.

It’s very hard to pick just one but our favourite tea to drink is Darjeeling First Flush. It’s absolutely delicious – light, delicate, slightly sweet. We drink it at all times because it’s so refreshing.

3) Where do you think the best tea comes from (e.g. Japan, Sri Lanka) and why do you think that?

This question is almost impossible to answer because there are superb teas from nearly all the major growing areas. Most important is the tea is produced using the traditional orthodox method. That means hand picking and processing in small batches relying on the skill of the estate manager to ensure a perfect result. If we really have to choose we would go for Darjeeling. Because of the location in the foothills of the Himalayas almost all production is Orthodox.

4) Where do you get your inspiration for more 'unusual' blends?

It’s the tea taster's job to understand what works with what – and most importantly to understand what’s going to be popular looking forward. It’s his skill that counts in matching what may seem to be strange components.

5) Why do you think it is important that people experience good quality teas?

Because there’s much more to life (and tea) than brown liquid with milk and sugar!

6) Why do you think independent blenders and tea merchants have been gaining popularity in the last few years?

We’ve experienced increasing demand for better quality and diversity in all aspects of consumption. Good tea is driven by the same forces pushing forward artisan cheeses, better wines and other specialist foods.

7) If you could have any five people at a tea party, who would they be and what would you serve them?

The Queen – Queens Tea – a blend specially developed for her during a royal visit to Germany.

Johnny Depp – Oolong. Mostly because the girls want to meet him!

Winston Churchill – Mokalbarie; a gorgeous Assam broken leaf tea suitable to be drunk with milk. Ideal for a classic Englishman.

Chinese Emperor Chen Nung; said to be the inventor of green tea – Yuncui- to see what he thinks of the modern equivalent.

The Mad Hatter – Singell First Flush Darjeeling. A gorgeous tea for a tea expert!

8) Where do you predict tea businesses (and tea itself) heading in the next few years?

We see a great future for specialised businesses like Cup of Tea. There is increasing demand for really good teas and we believe our huge range helps. Tea as a category will also continue to grow as more consumers become aware of what is available outside of dusty teabags! We are increasingly encouraged that more and more people are prepared to brew and drink real loose leaf teas.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Earl Grey taste challenge- day 15

So, in my taste challenge, I've drunk a lot of black tea. I decided, on a pleasant late summer's afternoon that a change was afoot. Tonight I'm drinking Grey's Green Earl Grey, a light China green tea.

This tea is light, fragrant and refreshing. It's a lovely pale yellow-green and has a really nice cleansing effect on the mouth. The tea has a slightly sweet note and the bergamot just sort of 'floats' as a subtle note, rather than a major flavour. I think that this blend suits the more delicate nature of the green tea. I think that green tea is slightly lighter beverage than the good old robust black tea. This is lovely. A rather special tea.

The health benefits of green tea are supposed to be huge, so I like that I'm drinking something that's healthy and delicious (why isn't everything that's healthy delicious?) Also, it's low caffeine, which is a bonus if you want to cut down.