If you’ve been following this blog for a long time, you probably remember that I used to be the special events manager for an Appalachian tea house. If you haven’t been following this blog for a long time, allow me to tell you more: I used to be the special events manager for an Appalachian tea house. Though I’ve always liked tea and sought out the good stuff (RIP Clarinda’s Tea Room, stalwart of the Southern Indiana tea scene in the early ’90s), what I know about tea comes from this period of my life.
The funny thing about working in tea is that people buy you tea as a present because they know you like it. What people perhaps do not consider is the sheer amount of free tea you receive throughout the course of your day. It’s a lot. Like, a whole lot. So much tea you cannot even imagine. For context: I quit Hillbilly Tea to become a writer and editor in 2013 and I still discover little vacuum-sealed baggies of dried leaves every time I reorganize my kitchen.
Hello, yes, it’s me! It’s me. I haven’t been around much since getting a full-time writing job and moving not once but twice (Charleston > Louisville > Italy), but I’m back and I wanted to dip my toe back in to blogging with one of my tea reviews.
Let’s get this out of the way: I am #basic. I am the #basickest. I love Target, autumn, yoga, brunch, and sweaters. I score favorably on quizzes such as this one. We can get into how I feel about the term basic at some other time; the fact remains that I am unapologetically #teambasic.
But I digress: Until Friday, I had never had that basic staple, the #starbucks #PSL. I’m on board with pumpkin pie, pumpkin smoothies, pumpkin burgers, and pumpkin cookies, but I’m just not that into sweet coffee drinks. My sweet friend Charlotte (hi, Charlotte!) took me to the airport, and indulged me when I got a 1/6th-the-pumps latte. Look, I had a buy-one-get-one coupon. Basics LOVE coupons. I couldn’t let it expire when I was on the plane. I know you’re on the edge of your seat: I didn’t hate it, but it was still a little too-too for me.
Rather than let them take my Basic Gold Card away, I headed straight for the tea shop and did the second-most basic thing I could: I bought pumpkin spice TEA so I’d have something to blog about on my blog no one reads. I know, so basic.
And here it is: pumpkin pie tea from the Louisville Tea Company. As you see, it’s a black tea, and honestly, not a great one. Something the LTC (if I may) does really well is range. They’ve got stuff for people weaning off oversugared Lipton to really hard-to-find teas that will impress even the snobbiest drinker. They will happily sell you something from either end of the spectrum without being snotty or pushy about it. If having extremely high-quality leaves is a non-negotiable for you, may I be the first to recommend many of their very, very fine varietals, but if you’re approaching this whole beverage thing with a sense of humor and want to try something kinda fun, then this is for you.
In addition to the leaves, you get pieces of dried pumpkin, cinnamon bark, whole cloves, bits of caramel, and some tiny pumpkin sprinkles. Is it gimmicky? Sure. Is it good? You know what? It is. It brews darker than I had expected, isn’t too sweet, and stands up nicely to two or three steepings. Pumpkin Pie tea calls to mind bonfires and hayrides and apple picking, and those are all fun things I happen to like. I’d recommend this with a little bit of vanilla soymilk first thing in the morning, maybe sweetened with a bit of sorghum.
Pumpkin Pie Black will run you about $7/50g from Louisville Tea Company. It’s a seasonal item, but you knew that.
Anyone had been surprised at liking a tea outside their usual favorites? Have you had another pumpkin spice tea you enjoyed? Tell me all about it.
Everyone who loves tea comes to it differently. Some people have a particularly transfixing pot at a restaurant and are hooked. Some people just evolve from drinking oversweet iced tea into more egalitarian drinkers. Like with most things I now like and excel at, I started liking tea to impress someone else.
My favorite aunt, Sheryl, is basically a master class on how to be an awesome human being. She went to college very young, was Miss University of Evansville, and became Dr. O’Sullivan before the age of 25. She then went on to educate the masses, including a young Paris Hilton. On top of all that, she is a world-class dancer, devout Christian who lives her faith with a quiet grace I can’t even process, and a truly awesome mom, sister, godmother, and daughter. That’s right: she’s pretty, smart, athletic, kind, and cool. It’s horrible to be around her sometimes.
When it came time for me to start drinking caffeine to keep myself functional, I was maybe 15 and still definitely the kind of person who wanted the approval of adults. Spoiler: I <3 approval. The coffee/tea choice was laid in front of me, and I picked tea to be more like Sheri and have something to talk about with her as I aged out of children’s literature (this is her particular academic realm of excellence). Because I was the sort of child who memorized books wholesale and repeated them back to anyone who would listen, I got kind of obsessed with tea, and well, here we are.
I knew my aunt was going to be in town, so I grabbed the Kusmi Petrushka, seduced by its truly gorgeous packaging. No photo I took did it justice, so just click around at the bottom of this post to check it out. I am so easily taken in by good colors and pretty patterns.
All casual-like, I just made the tea for her one morning like, “oh, this old thing? Had it forever! Definitely did not buy this on account of anyone else.”
This comes in bag and loose on the website, but the only had bag at the shop. Reader, I bought it. I know. It drinks like the nicest loose leaf, though! Promise. They come in these hand-sewn muslin sachets and you can tell Kusmi didn’t stick you with the gross dregs that they couldn’t put in a canister and sell at a premium. Kusmi is an old French company, and this particular varietal is from their Russian Imperial collection, the contents of which look between good and awe-inspiring. It’s a black tea with orange peel, vanilla, and almond notes, and it’s smooth and spicy in the best way possible, like if Earl Grey had a lovechild with real-deal chai. In a surprise twist, the second steep of this is even better than the first, though that trend didn’t carry on forever.
If I had it to do over again, I might drink this in the afternoon instead of first thing, but I have no regrets. And yes, my aunt loved it!
You can buy 4.4 ounces for about $20 here. They’re sold out of this one on their website for good reason, but go to Kusmi to check out their offerings.
Whenever I have something that is very, very expensive, I am consumed with a perverse desire for it to be mediocre. Not bad, exactly– I don’t want to be miserable– but I want it to be just “meh” enough that I can justify skipping Lululemon yoga pants in favor of Target ones, or Bojangles’ fried chicken in place of Thomas Keller’s. That said, I had aggressively, assertively low hopes for this week’s pick. Behold: the $37 blended breakfast tea from Bellocq Tea Atelier.
Laying aside the fact that it is silly to call a tea shop an “atelier,” I was extremely disappointed. I wanted this to be no better nor worse than any other nice breakfast tea I’d had– better than Tazo or Celestial Seasonings, maybe on par with something from Teavana. Nope. This Ceylon/Assam/Yunnan blend is pretty much a dream.
Breakfast blends take a lot of flak in the tea world for being the Uggs/Nike Shorts/French manicure of the beverages, but you know, a good one is worth its weight in gold. This is a good one, and I paid roughly that. With the toasty notes of a good Assam and the security blanket smell of a Ceylon, it’s just as nice first thing in the morning while you do a crossword as it was this afternoon, when I had it for a treat during a formidable rainstorm. It has an unusually long steeping time for a black tea– five to seven minutes, depending– which I ignored the first time I made it. It didn’t get bitter and the extra minute or two let the flavors unfold and gave me time to do some dishes. The second and third steeps brought out mellower notes, but were still great, which is what you’re hoping for from a higher-value tea.
So now you’re wondering: is this worth the $45ish dollars that it costs retail? The answer to that is probably no, unless you are a great connoisseur of tea. The good news is that you can buy this without the beautiful tin for the price of about $5/ounce, which is a good value for an organic black tea. I’m almost ashamed to admit this, but the tin was why I bought it in the first place: hefty and old-fashioned, it keeps the tea nice and fresh and looks beautiful on your shelf. Unless money’s no object, skip the pretty packaging and just get it delivered to you in the sleeve.
If you’ve poked around this blog at all, you have probably picked up on the fact that I hate to waste pretty much anything. I’m one of those people who puts water into the soap dispenser to get more liquid out (what? it works!), and I save all my vegetable peels so I can make stock. I’m like your grandma who lived through the Great Depression, only I have WiFi. To me, wastefulness is lazy and uncreative, two things no one should want to be.
Right, so, pineapples were on special at Publix, and I love a sale, so obviously I bought several. I peeled them and chopped them and ate them, but then I had all these spiny skins littering my kitchen and I was loathe to throw them away. What the Sam Hill do you do with a couple pounds of pineapple peel? I googled around and came across zoborodo, a Nigerian tisane that put them to good use.
As we’ve covered in previous blogs, tisanes (or herbal teas) aren’t really teas at all. They’re waters infused with herbs, spices, fruits, and flowers. They’re hydrating, almost calorie-free, and have tons of benefits for you, but they aren’t tea. This one can lower blood pressure and decrease pain, plus it’s got a little vitamin C to boot. Here’s an easy recipe for zoborodo that I adapted from a few I found online. The only odd thing in this recipe is hibiscus flowers, which you can buy at Whole Foods or a health food store.
Acquire the following:
Peel of a pineapple
A generous handful of hibiscus flowers
Two tablespoons (ish) of diced raw ginger
Juice of 2 limes (pro tip: check the “priced for quick sale” shelf at your supermarket. Limes are expensive right now, bout they’re usually there. They’re fine for juice, but just kind of ugly. I got a dozen for a dollar this week.)
Put all these in a big pot and cover with water (I did about 2 liters of water). Bring to a boil and simmer for five minutes, then remove from heat and let it steep for about 10 minutes. Strain out all the things you put in and serve. You can drink this hot, but I loved it iced! It’s still 90 degrees here in Charleston, so the mere idea of drinking a warm beverage is a horror. It’s a little bit sour, so add some agave or honey if you want something sweeter. Enjoy!
So what do y’all think of my pineapple reuse? Any other tips for me?
After an agonizing ten minutes deciding which of the four offerings I would select, I left the shop with the Ambessa Lingonberry Green. Let’s start with the downsides before I go on to the fun stuff. Bad part one: it’s a sachet, which I didn’t realize. Bad part two: I did not suddenly become a Beard award winner OR the partner of a model after drinking a big cup of this tea.
Now, on to the fun part. I love lingonberries. They’re somewhat uncommon in the United States (though if you live up north, you can grow them), but they’re a staple in Sweden, Finland, Iceland, and other consistently cold European nations. They’re tart and sweet, and boast a host of nutritional and medicinal properties that make me wonder what all the fuss about acai berries is. The green tea they’re blended with here is a Japanese sencha, and it’s very delicate. We’ve covered how great green tea is for you in the past, so no need to rehash here.
The nose on the leaves was just slightly fruity– enough that you knew there was cowberry in your future, but not enough to remind you of Celestial Seasonings Peach Whatever Whatever. I steeped it for threeish minutes and took the bag out and this is what I got:
It’s subtler than I expected– the lingonberries are there if you’re looking for them, but they don’t knock you out. That’s a drawback of some teas that come blended with fruit, and I was glad we sidestepped that particular pitfall. This would make a really nice iced green tea for a hot day, but I enjoyed it in its intended form, too. Definitely recommend, despite the fact that it did not come with complimentary Michelin stars. Ugh.
The lingonberry green runs about $8 for 40 sachets, and is available here.
Anyone tried any of the other Ambessa teas? I’m curious about the Earl of Harlem!
If you’re still with me after that unforgivable (but very funny) pun, I want to share with you my recipe for homemade chai in honor of this, a midsummer tea party. Chai is one of those things I didn’t realize you could make yourself until I thought about it and was like, “well, obviously it gets made at some point.” If you were wondering, that’s the provenance of about 90% of my DIY projects. Behold, Oprah-free chai:
I know it’s pretty hot to be thinking about drinking chai, but who doesn’t love an iced bev this time of year? I tried this out a couple different ways (details after the jump), and it was good hot, cold, room temp, and as an ice cube.
I’m fond of hating on Savannah. Not to say I don’t like Savannah, I do. It’s a fun town with gorgeous architecture and great restaurants and friendly folks and beautiful art. It’s just that Charleston is so. much. better. I like to tell people who are deciding between the two for vacation spots (not sure why these two are always paired, but there you have it): Anything you can do there, you can do better here.
I would like to amend that statement in two regards: one, they have way better thrift stores. Two, they have much, much better tea offerings. Today’s tea, the Blueberry Black, is from the Tea Room, a little shop on Broughton that specializes in tea and its myriad accouterments.* It’s slightly precious inside, but the tea ladies are knowledgeable and their offerings are many.
As you might have expected, today’s tea is a black, and it’s from China. It’s mild and smooth, and I don’t know much about it. It’s mild like an assam, though and was pretty caffeinated. The bright blue flecks you see in the photo are cornflowers and I think they’re just for color. I liked how pretty it was to look at. I know that’s a stupid thing to like about something you’re going to soak in water and then drink, but the cerulean was a nice surprise when I opened the bag.
The nose on this thing is very fruity, and it’s pleasant– somewhere between a real blueberry smell and a Bath and Body Works blueberry body spray (I know you know what I mean). A teaspoon steeps for roughly three minutes on the first infusion, and more like five or six on the second.
The taste is nice, pleasant, not overbearing in the slightest. The black tea was smooth and light; very drinkable. Blueberries were not super-strong, but there was a nice bit of fruitiness. If you aren’t usually a tea drinker, this might be one to change your heart. It was a great breakfast tea, but this would be a great iced tea– toss in a sprig of mint and you’re in business. I’ll be putting this away in volume come summer.
Blackberry Blue runs 3.75/ounce and can be purchased online or at the Tea Room.
Sometimes, you think it is Tuesday, so you get up and get dressed and go to work, but then you get a phone call, and two hours later you’re eating a week-old mango in the parking lot of South of the Border on the way to Fayetteville, North Carolina. While I don’t recommend that particular timeline for your stress levels or workplace productivity, these things happen.
Before we begin, I would like to say that if you ever find yourself in Fayetteville, I strongly recommend you wander over to Marquis Market. It’s on Person Street in the historic part of downtown, and it’s a hidden gem. Expansive and warm, it looks like something on Apartment Therapy, and has Boylan sodas in the machine and good coffee and sandwiches to boot. It’s also super cheap. They stock Octavia Teas, which I am not too familiar with. I grabbed a cup of the Blood Orange White and commenced to drinking and contemplating how I got to this place.
What do you know about white tea? You probably know it’s a little pricier and would guess it’s a bit delicate in flavor. It’s a lightly oxidized tea, and it is purported to have antibacterial properties. Cool, right? It also helps improve blood flow and can reduce stress. Blood oranges have a ton of vitamin C, so you can’t lose there, either.
I wanted to love this, because I love the gentle flavors that white teas have, and I am eager for citrus season every year. I was curious how the blood oranges, which are a vibrant taste, and the more nuanced tea would balance and they just…didn’t. It didn’t really have enough of either to be satisfying, and it mostly just tasted like a gently scented water. It tasted like the third steep on the first. If you like something very, very mild, this might be for you, but I wasn’t crazy about it.
I’m interested in trying out some of the other products Octavia’s got. If this sounds like it’s for you, it’s $13 for an ounce and a quarter and can be purchased here.
Anyone tried a tea I might should try? I’m all ears.
I feel like one of those horrible guys you knew in college who was really into anime and greeted Korean girls with a “konichiwa” when I describe anything Asian as “elegant” or “delicate”, but I’ve always enjoyed Vietnamese teas because I find them elegant and delicate. They aren’t as up front with what they’re working with, and the flavor combos will knock your socks off if you’re paying attention. Since most of Vietnam’s tea exports go to Russia (something like 7:1, Russia:Rest of the World), it’s something most people haven’t tasted before, but it’s available enough to not be a major splurge.
Today, I’ve brought you a nam lanh varietal that I think you’ll dig. They’re just called that because Nam Lanh is the estate from which it comes, not because it’s something entirely different than what you’ve had. It’s the same drying/twisting/aging process we’ve gone over in the past.
You’re in the same general palate area as an assam, but this doesn’t knock you over the head like that does with the MALT MALT MALT stuff. It’s a little coppery, and has this not-subtle hint of molasses that I love (I feel like I’m on the record about molasses, right? Love that stuff.). If the copper is kind of a quiet, sly grin, the molasses part is like when your mom kicks you under the table really hard and you’re like, “OW WHY DID…no one kick me.”
You’ll want to do about two big pinches of this (equal to a teaspoon, but the twiggy structure makes it hard to measure out like you would something leafy) and to steep it for about three minutes the first time through, and more like five on the second. It’s high on the caffeination scale for tea, so if you’re like me, proceed with caution or make this a breakfast drink. I also love to make a diluted version of this tea to brine poultry and marinate tofu or mushrooms. Just a thought. I’m not going to tell you what to do.
This comes in pretty cheap, too, at $3.75 for 2 ounces. It’s from a Southern Season (expect to see a lot of this– they’re the best tea purveyors in Charleston), and it makes a good holiday beverage for teetotalers at your parties.
What are you drinking this lovely Tuesday morning?