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I’ll bet I’m not the first person to remark that the spectacle of someone describing wine in flowery, high-falutin’ language can be just the tiniest bit ridiculous. In fact, I know I’m not. I can’t recall any specific instances, but I know it’s the sort of thing that I’ve seen mined for comic effect on more than one occasion.

Darjeeling White Tips White Tea (Photo source: The English Tea Store)

Darjeeling White Tips White Tea (Photo source: The English Tea Store)

Then there’s tea. I’m also going to bet that the tradition of using fancy language to describe tea is not nearly as well-established as it is for wine, but it does exist. I’d wager that professional tea tasters have a set of terms that they use while plying their trade and I’ve seen plenty of “civilian” reviewers do this sort of thing. You can find a forum discussion on this topic here and a list of some of the terms often used to describe dry leaf and steeped tea here, as well as at various other points around the Internet.

I have to admit that I don’t go in for much of this sort of thing when I’m reviewing tea. Which is not to say that I object to the practice or feel that there’s anything wrong with it, and I’m sure some of these descriptors creep into my reviews from time to time.

But for the most part I can’t help feeling that trying to describe how something tastes is kind of an exercise in futility. Unless you take the shortcut of comparing it to something else that people are likely to have tasted. Of course that only works if you’re using common comparisons that your audience is likely to be familiar with.

On the other hand, to be perfectly open-minded and evenhanded about the whole thing I can see where there might be some use for some of the terms used on the list mentioned above. Terms like grassy, mellow, metallic, scorched, and thin seem like they would work pretty well to describe tea and even toasty and woody are likely to evoke pretty definite impressions in most people’s minds. On the flip side, however, if you were to tell me that a tea was pointy, dry, clean or bright I’d be inclined to wonder exactly what you were trying to say.

But enough of this. I’m off to sample some more of this fine, full, rich, round, soft, mellow Assam that I’ve been drinking so much of lately.

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Oh, the trials and tribulations of a tea reviewer! We endure slings and arrows of outraged tea vendors (a bit of paraphrasing of Shakespeare here). I was faced with one lately and so began thinking of others. Here are the top five on my list. You may have others.

One of the more successful reviews – a tasty cup of English Evening. (Photo source: A.C. Cargill, all rights reserved)

One of the more successful reviews – a tasty cup of English Evening. (Photo source: A.C. Cargill, all rights reserved)

1 A Totally Awful Tea

Oh, wait, I forgot… there’s no such thing as a totally awful tea. Yeah, right! I must confess, though, that most of the “teas” I haven’t liked were a bunch of flavored concoctions and things like rooibos (redbush) and honeybush that are called “tea” but are from totally different plants. There have also been some teas that, while not totally awful, certainly left me searching through the lexicon in my brain for something nice to say about them. I finally came up with “Well, not the best I’ve ever tasted.” Pretty lame, huh?

2 Vendor Pushback and Comments

Reviews have been pulled off of some sites because the vendor didn’t like the poor rating the tea was given. Gee, that’s sort of like schools giving every student an ‘A for effort.’ If I don’t see at least one bad review of a tea, I get suspicious. Human taste being as variable as it is, there will always be at least one reviewer who says “Bleh!” Also, knowing that human taste is variable, I chuck out some of the extreme reviews both good and bad, especially if they are very brief or not based on good reasons. You, as the reader, need to do the same. Some teas deserve all those glowing reviews, but even they will have someone out there who just absolutely positively hates that tea. Some tea vendors patrol the internet and attack all but the most glowing reviews of their teas. To them I can only say, “You learn from the bad as well as the good.”

3 Other Reviewers’ Comments

Tea vendors don’t usually send samples to only one or two reviewers. They send to several. Those folks often, in addition to their own review, read the reviews of others and comment. I have gotten some comments on my reviews such as “Gee, your take on this tea is really weird. It didn’t taste like that to me at all.” As if a tea should taste exactly the same to everyone who drinks it. There seems to be no pattern here, either. I could like a tea and someone else would comment that he/she hated it and vice versa. I have learned not to worry about this now, but I will still go back and retry a tea I disliked if enough people care to comment that they liked it.

4 How to Politely Decline an Offer

It is not — I repeat, not — good manners to say to a vendor who offers to send you samples “No frigging way!” With over 100,000 words in the English language, you surely can find something a bit more genteel than that to get your meaning across. Try a Jane Austen-esque reply such as “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid that I must refrain from what someone most assuredly would find a distinct pleasure.” And, of course, this would be a most truthful statement (Jane would never condone outright lying, just a smoothing of the rough edges of the truth).

5 A Great Tea Vendor Goes Out of Business

Probably the worst of all is having a tea vendor, whose teas you have fallen head over heels in love with after reviewing it, go out of business. It’s happened to me. I only got to try a couple of their teas (Tie Guan Yin Oolong Tea and Golden Bi Luo Black Tea), but the memory of those teas lingers still. Yes, tea reviewing is a risky affair. You can find yourself sighing during the middle of the day over the memory of enjoying a great tea that you have yet to find from another vendor. (This is even more of an issue if it’s a specially flavored tea.)

Think you want to review some teas? Proceed at your own risk. Cheers!

© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Tea reviewing is not exactly rocket science. In fact, I sorta dove into reviewing teas head first when a tea company sent me some samples and then this competing company found out and said, “Hey, would you like to try our teas?” So, I said like “Sure, why not?” And then, so, like, they sent me some samples and then I reviewed them and people read them and other tea vendors started sending samples and…

Uh, well, you get the idea.

Electric Kettles are part of your tea tasting torso!

Electric Kettles are part of your tea tasting torso!

In reality, tea reviews have an anatomy similar to the human body, with its major systems. At least, that’s my theory.

Head = Planning & Knowledge

In your anatomy, your head is where your brain resides — you know, that mass of “little grey cells” (as fictional sleuth Hercule Poirot calls it) in your skull. It thinks, reasons, works things out, but also hates, loves, and processes sensory input (taste, smell, sight, sound, and touch).

In a tea review, this is the planning part. Tea samples arrive. (These could be ones you buy — lots of vendors offer sample sizes these days — or that the vendor sends gratis.) Time to do a bit of studying. Examine the package of each sample to be sure it is intact and airtight. Check to see if any of the teas should be used right away. Some delicate white and green teas, for example, have fairly short shelf lives. Then, check into how to steep the tea for best effect. Many vendors put basic information on the sample package (water temperature and steeping time) and more detailed information on their web site. If you will not be trying the teas right away, store the samples in an appropriate place. Hopefully, this will be short-term storage until you can do a properly set up taste test.

This is also the sensory processing part. You will be tasting, smelling, seeing. It can take some time and effort and trying a bunch of teas to start discerning some of the finer differences. At least, it has for me and my dearest hubby, who has been as involved in the tea tastings as I have.

Torso = Equipment

The torso supports the head and houses your essential parts (heart, stomach, etc.). Your equipment is the main body of your tea review and digests (steeps) the tea. You will want to do a bit of research on the vendor’s site or on blogs like this one to determine how to prepare the tea in accordance with the vendor’s recommendations or the advice of others who have tried the same or a similar tea (after awhile, you will have sufficient knowledge to judge for yourself what water temperature, steeping time, teawares, etc., will be needed). Then, you will want to decide what teawares to use. Frankly, for hubby and me this has gotten more and more complicated, especially now that we have our our “Tea Gang” (a small collection of teapots and a wonderful steeping mug) from which to choose.

Just like the human torso, regular workouts/tea tastings will develop your connoisseur muscles. (This also works for the following two items, also.)

Arms & Legs = Actions

Arms and hands are used to do things: lift, carry, pour, wash, etc. Legs transport you: from the sink where you fill the kettle with fresh water to the stove to heat the water; from the stove to the teapot; from the kitchen with the tray with the full teapot and the treats to the dining room table to serve your tea time guests.

When it comes to tea tastings, the arms and legs are the actions: heating water, steeping, lifting cups to lips, and so on. Without these actions, there is no tasting — duh! Water doesn’t put itself into the kettle. Tea leaves don’t put themselves into the teapot, gaiwan, kyusu, etc. The steeped liquid does not pour itself. Sorry if this seems self-evident, but amazingly enough there are folks out there who need to hear it said.

The Whole Picture

Put all of the above together, and you will have a successful and complete tea tasting. And whatever you do, don’t let some sassy teapot take over and start running the show (yes, it happens!).

© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Tangiers Lemon White Tea

Tangiers Lemon White Tea

Name: Tangiers Lemon Flavored White Tea

Brand: English Tea Store

Type: White Tea, flavored

Form: Loose leaf

Review: I’ve long said that white peony tea and lemon are a natural pairing: While I love the fruitiness of unflavored white peony, a little kick of lemon is sometimes a welcome addition, adding a bit of tang that does a great job of perking up the taste buds.

The English Tea Store caters to my longings by offering this blend of white peony and lemon flavoring. The tea itself brews up to a pretty, pale gold liquor with a medium-light body. While some lemon-flavored teas can sometimes have a stale quality to them, Tangiers Lemon isn’t one of them. Instead, the lemon flavor is quite snappy, making it a pleasure to drink.

Tangiers Lemon is a decidedly affordable option for those who like flavored whites or who are simply serious lemon-heads. Recommended.

Preparation Tips: The flavor in this tea is strong, so watch both your leaf amount and steep times. I’d recommend about 5 grams of leaf to eight ounces of water that has been cooled to 180F/82.2C. Let it steep for about a minute. Warning: White peony tea is quite light and fluffy and sometimes the leaf will float on top of the water as it infuses, staying bone dry. To avoid this waste of tea leaf, and to get rich flavor that you want, carefully pour your water into the pot or infusion basket, making sure that it saturates all of the leaves and buds.

Serving Tips:  This lemony, crisp tea is quite neutral, making it easy to pair with many types of foods. I wouldn’t serve it with a super-heavy or rich menu, but I think it would be awesome with sandwiches, chicken, or fish. Tangiers Lemon is also quite delicious on its own. Do try it iced: There are few things more refreshing than this tea on ice.

© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Scottish Breakfast Tea

Scottish Breakfast Tea

Name: Scottish Breakfast Tea

Brand: English Tea Store

Type: Black tea, blend

Form: Loose leaf

Review: This is an interesting blend of Indian teas, including Assam, as well as Keemun from China. According to a video produced by the English Tea Store, one of the goals in the blending of this tea was to suggest the flavors single malt whisky aged in oak barrels.

(I suspect that the bit of Keemun, which often has a smoky characteristic, really enhances the oak-y notes in this blend.)

Scottish Breakfast Tea is fairly austere: I don’t pick up any natural sweetness when sipping this smooth, full-bodied tea. What I do pick up is a slight smokiness, as well as some woody notes. It isn’t terribly astringent, either, though if you let it steep long enough it can develop a slight bitterness.  If you like a fairly neutral tea, this could be a good option for you, particularly if you want something that does not contain sweet/spicy notes that could provide an unpleasant contrast with food.

Preparation Tips: Use a heaping teaspoon of Scottish Breakfast Tea for every eight ounces of boiling water. The tea is fairly forgiving on steep times but I’d suggest a 4-5 minute steep for best results (maybe a little longer if you plan to add milk to your cup). Because the tea doesn’t over-steep easily,

Serving Tips: I think would go best with traditional breakfasts that include various types of meats, such as sausages, bacon or ham. The English Tea Store also recommends serving this with a bowl of oatmeal (porridge), which I suspect would also work quite nicely. If you sweeten your tea, try some honey in this one, instead of sugar: The honey is a better match with the oaky, woody notes.  You could drink this tea on its own, but I feel that it is primarily a “food tea.”

© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Jasmine with Flowers Green Tea

Jasmine with Flowers Green Tea

Name: Jasmine With Flowers Green Tea

Brand: English Tea Store

Type: Green tea, scented

Form: Loose leaf

Review: This is a ridiculously inexpensive tea ($3.89 for four ounces as of November, 2011) and, for the price, brews up a respectable cup of jasmine green tea that should suit jasmine lovers well. The dry leaf itself is made up of dark, twisted leaves scattered with dried jasmine blossoms. The jasmine scent dominates, although it isn’t overpowering, even after steeping to a medium-bodied liquor.

In the cup, the tea is dominated by the sweet, floral jasmine, and I don’t taste that much green tea. The tea has some mild astringency which is not unpleasant: Brew this tea right and you’ll have a nice cup that makes for nice sipping as your afternoon winds down.

As its price suggests, this is not a “gourmet” tea, but rather a good workaday alternative to more expensive jasmine teas, such as the English Tea Store’s Jasmine Dragon Tears.  Still, it remains an economical alternative to expensive teas, without tasting cheap or artificial.

Preparation Suggestions: For the best results, use a light hand when preparing this tea. A teaspoon of leaf to eight ounces of 190F/87.7C water should do nicely. Check the tea after letting it steep for a minute: If it isn’t strong enough, let it continue steeping for another minute. A too-long steep, or too much leaf, can produce a tea with bitter notes that don’t work well with the jasmine flavor.

Serving Suggestions:  Many Chinese restaurants serve jasmine green tea with meals, and it can be quite refreshing when served with Chinese food.  The English Tea Store also recommends serving it with cucumber sandwiches, and I can see this tea going well with a traditional afternoon tea service of sandwiches, scones and sweets. Jasmine green teas are also great on ice, so don’t be afraid to experiment with this tea.

© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Chocolate Orange Flavored Tea

Chocolate Orange Flavored Tea

Name: Chocolate Orange

Brand: English Tea Store

Type: Black Tea, Flavored

Form: Loose leaf

Review: The holiday trifecta of diet doom is fast approaching: Halloween with its mini-candy bars, Thanksgiving with cornbread and candied sweet potatoes and Christmas, which supplies me with enough calories to hold me for a full year. I need some flavored teas to quell the cravings and keep my appetite in check!

The English Tea Store’s Chocolate Orange black tea is inspired by the “Chocolate Orange” candy that is popular in the United Kingdom. Black tea (Ceylon, perhaps?) is flavored with chocolate and orange flavors and strewn with bits of dried orange rind red-orange flower petals (not sure what type of flower, though). The tea infuses to a relatively light bodied, medium amber liquor with a rich nose of chocolate with a hint of orange.

Once I started to sip the tea, however, I noted that the orange dominated, although the chocolate does make its presence known. Neither flavor is particularly aggressive, however, nor is this tea particularly sweet: If you need a bit of sweetness, I’d advise adding a bit of honey or sugar to the brew.

Overall, I was surprised at how subtle this tea is. Many flavored teas are a whole lot of overkill, but the English Tea Store has managed to commission a smooth blend that doesn’t overwhelm the palate. The down side to this is that if you are looking for a candy bar alternative, you may need to doctor the tea a bit to get it to where you like it. The upside is that you can customize the tea to create the flavor intensity you desire.

Preparation Tips: Use a teaspoon of leaf to eight ounces of boiling water. Brew for three minutes for a more subtle cup,  four to five minutes if you plan to add milk and/or sugar.

Serving Tips: This tea is light enough that you could probably pair it with buttered toast for breakfast or plain butter or sugar cookies as a snack.

© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Scottish Caramel Toffee Pu-erh

Scottish Caramel Toffee Pu-erh

Name: Scottish Caramel Toffee Pu-erh

Brand: English Tea Store

Type: Pu-erh, flavored

Form: Loose leaf

Review: I do confess that I don’t normally think of Scotland and pu-erh as having any sort of natural connection to each other, though perhaps that is due to a lack of imagination on my part. I’m glad, though, that someone was creative enough to create this blend of toffee pieces and shou (ripe) pu-erh tea, which I find very tasty indeed. The tea is priced right and can be infused more than once, making it a very good value indeed.

This isn’t a particularly sophisticated flavored tea and it doesn’t have a lot of depth or complexity. It is, however, an inspired flavor combination (kind of like peanut butter and chocolate). As the English Tea Store notes in its product description, the earthiness of pu-erh is actually a good match to the sweetness of toffee. The liquor is very dark brown, as is typical for a shou pu-erh, and medium bodied. For many people, this might be an acceptable coffee alternative, particularly if they are partial to flavored coffees.

Preparation Tips: I recommend 1.5 teaspoons of leaf to eight ounces of boiling water. A three minute steep worked well for me, but if you like a more aggressive flavor, up the steep time to five minutes. It tastes plenty sweet to me, but you may want to add some additional sweetening, as well as a bit of  milk, for a more decadent cup. Scottish Caramel Toffee Pu-Erh is also good for more than one steep: I’d recommend upping the steep time 1-2 minutes for each successive infusion.

Serving Tips:  There is no reason to serve this with food: It is flavorful enough on its own and would probably conflict with the flavor of most foodstuffs anyway. Save this tea for dessert or as a substitute for  a sweet breakfast pastry.

© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Hawaiian Colada Rooibos

Hawaiian Colada Rooibos

Name: Hawaiian Colada Rooibos

Brand: English Tea Store

Type: Herbal tisane, rooibos

Form: Loose leaf

Review: If you like pineapple, The English Tea Store’s Hawaiian Colada Rooibos ought to be up your alley. I’ve never had a flavored tea or tisane in which the pineapple flavor is so strong. While this isn’t a bad thing, if you aren’t overfond of pineapple, this may not be the drink for you. On the other hand, if you are the sort that savors pineapple hard candies and the like, give Hawaiian Colada Rooibos a try.

As its  name suggests, Hawaiian Colada Rooibos contains pineapple and coconut flavoring and is supposed to be reminiscent of a tropical drink. I don’t taste a lot of coconut, although the tisane is remarkably sweet (even though it is unsweetened) so it may be that the coconut flavor is what provides the sweetness. The pineapple dominates and is actually well-matched with the rooibos.

I’m generally not a huge fan of iced rooibos, but Hawaiian Colada Rooibos is actually quite awesome on ice. The tangy pineapple flavors come alive, creating a most refreshing beverage.

Preparation Tips: Because of the strength of the pineapple flavor, don’t use too much dry leaf while preparing this tisane. The result could be a decidedly heavy-handed beverage. You should, of course, experiment to find out how much leaf you like, but I’d recommend starting with 1 tablespoon of rooibos to about 8 ounces of water if preparing as a hot tea. If you plan to serve it iced, which I recommend, double the amount of rooibos. Allow to steep for 5-7 minutes for best results.

Serving Tips:  Fans of pineapple will probably enjoy this tea on its own, though the pineapple flavor makes it a suitable match to many different foods. Try it with Chinese food some evening!

© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Godiva Roche Rooibos

Godiva Roche Rooibos

Name: Godiva Roche Rooibos

Brand: English Tea Store

Type: Herbal Tisane, Rooibos

Form: Loose leaf

Review: Looking for a chocolate rooibos? Godiva Roche Rooibos is a good one. Made from rooibos, cacao beans and peels, vanilla and what appears to be a handful of calandula petals, this is certainly a rich treat for chocolate fans.

Chocolate and rooibos actually go together quite well: The sweetness of the chocolate meshes with the earthy characteristics of the rooibos nicely, creating a soothing, yet also elegant drink. The English Tea Store was wise to add a strong dose of vanilla to this brew, as vanilla enhances the sweetness of chocolate and is a natural pairing with rooibos.

One Warning: Many people find themselves initially disappointed by chocolate-flavored rooibos because it isn’t as sweet as they expect it to be. Keep in mind that Godiva Roche Rooibos isn’t sweetened, so if you are used to drinking beverages that contain sugar, this tisane may seem somewhat austere at first. That said, I don’t normally use sweetener in my teas or tisanes and I find this rooibos to be sweet enough on its own. If you are hoping to drink something that tastes like a chocolate bar, be prepared to add some sugar or honey to your cup.

Preparation Tips: If you like a very rich chocolate flavor, use 2 tablespoons of dry leaf to 8 ounces of water when preparing Godiva Roche Rooibos and allow to steep for about eight minutes. If you prefer a more subtle cup, reduce the steep time to five minutes and adjust the leaf amount to taste. Add milk and sweetener for a lower-calorie alternative to hot chocolate.

Serving Tips: Drink Godiva Roche Rooibos on its own as a snack or liquid dessert. If you really want to pair it with food, choose plain butter or sugar cookies.

© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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