Sunday, October 31, 2010

Upton Tea Imports: My Favorite and Least Favorite Teas

Upton Tea Imports is one of my favorite tea companies. I've sampled more teas from them (87 as of writing this) than any other company. As usual, this collection or list represents my own sometimes peculiar opinion. Someone who has tried some of these teas may notice my tendency for enjoying sharp and strong-tasting green teas; if you are also a fan of these greens, you may enjoy trying some of these for yourself.

My Favorite Teas from Upton:

Unfortunately, some of my favorite teas from Upton were small batches that have been discontinued, including a long-leaf Darjeeling green from Makaibari estate (this estate never ceases to impress me!), a large-leaf green tea from Thailand, grown from the cultivar normally used to make Assam, and a broken-leaf blend of teas from the Himalayan region which I found brighter and sharper than a typical Darjeeling BOP.

Some of Upton's more stable offerings have also grabbed my attention, though. I'm often talking about Upton's Oolong Se Chung (including their Osmanthus Se Chung), and those are probably my two favorite offerings from Upton, but I've talked about them enough, so I'll focus on green teas that stood out when I sampled them. One such tea was their chun mee dao ming, a nuanced version of a familiar style of tea, chun mee, which is not frequently viewed as a connoisseur's tea. I found this tea to have a surprising complexity to its aroma. Another one was a ceylon green from Oliphant estate; it struck me as pleasantly tobacco-like, just as in Upton's description. Yet another green tea I loved was ZG36: Organic Wuyuan Ruikang Hairpoint. This tea was cleaner and grassier, but had a very pleasant edge to it.

My Least Favorite Teas from Upton:

Many of these are not bad teas, but are just a question of personal taste. For example, I tried BH60: Hibiscus Flowers, Coarse Cut and didn't like them, but this isn't because they're bad, just because I apparently don't like straight hibiscus--too sour for me.

But some teas I just didn't think were all that good, for example, the two Oolongs from Tindharia estate, TD90: Tindharia Estate First Flush Green Oolong (EX-10) and TDC2 - Tindharia Estate Oolong (DJ-54), were both rather pricey greener Darjeeling oolong that just didn't do it for me. I know that it's not that I dislike greener Darjeeling oolongs, as the Soureni Organic Oolong from Fresh Darjeeling Tea (which is close in price) proved. Other disappointments were Upton's BOP Ceylons from the Dimbula and Kandy regions; I found both to be strong, harsh, not particularly aromatic, and not particularly interesting.

I've had plenty of solidly good teas from Upton, and continue to be impressed with their offerings and prices. But these are the teas that stood out as the ones I was most and least impressed with!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Tea Tasting at the University of Delaware

The residential life and services department at most colleges encourages and often requires residence advisors (RA's) to organize period programs and activities with their dorm hall, in order to foster a sense of community. Last year I teamed up with an RA at the University of Delaware to sponsor a tea tasting and tea swap in one of the dorms, and it was a huge success. Even though it happened to fall on an unseasonably hot day in spring (reaching the 90's), there was a huge turnout of people wanting to drink hot tea! I was impressed and encouraged, and resolved to help organize one again.

While it was by no means a fancy event, it got college students to sample lots of loose tea. The most exciting thing to me about these events is that a lot of the students who come do not regularly drink loose tea, and they end up sampling many different varieties of loose leaf tea, and loving it. One thing that also surprises me is how many people drink the tea unsweetened--even though we provide honey, sugar, and artificial sweetener.

Here is a picture from before the second such event (the table was much more disorderly afterwards):

The setup was very simple; I brought lots of loose tea, some of which was donated courtesy of Arbor Teas, Teatulia, and the Boston Tea Company. There were numerous other brands which I provided as well. There were at least 4 of each kinds of tea: green, black, white, and oolong, and there was an aged Pu-erh, and many herbals, including some I had grown locally in my own garden. People were able to brew the tea loose in their own mug, or a ceramic teapot, and and a variety of tea infusers and filters were also provided. People were also encouraged to bring their own teas to contribute, sample, and trade.

I want to thank the RA and the other student (pictured above) who organized this event and made this project possible! They baked delicious croissants and cinnamon buns to go with the tea.

I talked informally with people as they were choosing a tea to drink, about where the tea comes from, how it is processed. Rather than an organized educational medium like a talk, the event was more informal, with a drop-in, drop-out setup. I am most comfortable in this sort of environment though, and I found the students were really enthusiastic to learn about all the different varieties of tea present.

Lastly, in yet another encouraging point, we composted all of the tea, even breaking open the few tea bags that were used. You can see below that we drank a lot of tea at this one small event:

People often talk about how the U.S. lacks a strong tea culture, but it seems that the younger generation is very passionate about tea (and about sustainability, which is also encouraging!). I look forward to running more programs like this. I am thinking of having one open to the general public as well!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Pare Down the Teas to Pair with your Pear

I've lately started to think more about tea-food pairings. It's fall, and this means pear season. I think pears and tea are well-paired in general. Unfortunately, I don't think I chose the best tea to pair with my pear this morning: I drank a Makaibari Estate 1st Flush from Arbor Teas, which is a tea I absolutely love, but for this pairing was too mild, too fruity, and altogether too pear-like. Pictured here is a pear that I just ate, after cutting it with a paring knife (honest! I'm not just trying to make a terrible pun):

So how does one pare down the selection of teas from which to choose from for pairing with your pear? I think the basic ideas to consider when pairing tea with food are contrast and complementation. Contrast ensures your tea does not taste too much like the food, and complementation makes sure that the tea does not clash with the food, nor do you want either to be overpowered. How does this play out with pears?

Pears are very mild so I think contrast, rather than complementation is the key consideration here. This is my personal preference:

  • I'd avoid light, fruity, and sweeter teas. This would include light, fruity Darjeelings, especially first flush, but it would also include Keemun and other black teas with a deeper, earthier quality suggestive of dried fruit or wine, and it would certainly include light oolongs like pouchong and Tung Ting.

  • I'd choose a tea with a fair amount of bitterness. Pears are sweet and have no little to no bitterness, and are well complemented by bitter teas. These could include a strong black tea, or a brisk green tea of either steamed or pan-fired varieties.

  • I'd avoid teas that exhibit more astringency than bitterness, which includes quite a few green teas. Pear skin can have a bit of astringency, and although it's subtle, I find it leaves me unsatisfied if it's not cleared out by some bitterness.

What teas do I most enjoy pairing with pears? I like Foojoy's Triple-Cup Extra Green, which is in many respects I think a very typical example of a Chinese pan-fired green tea. I think gunpowder and chun mee go well with pears. I also like the (now discontinued, but replaced by similar offerings) Himalayan BOP from Upton Tea Imports. This is a high-grown black tea that is pleasingly bitter but not as fruity as most Darjeelings. I think pears also go well with Assam, and with sheng Pu-erh that is young enough to still carry considerable bitterness.

I want to emphasize that this is just my personal taste. A lot of tea companies use pear as a flavoring for white teas or lighter oolongs. I'm not crazy about such blends...they are too weak for me!

A Little About This Particular Pear:

Just like I pay attention to tea and enjoy trying different varieties of tea, I do the same with just about every kind of food out there. The large green pear is a D'Anjou, and the smaller one is a Forelle.

What was this particular pear like? It was sweet, juicy, and delicious! It was labelled as a "Red pear" and I can't tell if it's a red D'Anjou or Red Bartletts. The shape suggests a Bartlett but the flavor, texture of its skin, and the fact that it did not bruise as easily suggest otherwise. The skin of this pear was thin, smooth, and relatively tough for its thinness.

The texture of the flesh, when ripe, is soft, and very creamy, less mealy than a typical D'Anjou or Bartlett at this stage of sweetness. I find regular Bartlett's and D'Anjou's can both get mealy when overripe, whereas the red pears are a bit more pleasing if they're past their prime. I also think that the red pears are also a bit more pleasant when underripe.

Are some pears better for tea than others? I don't think so...pears are really similar to each other; I think if one tea went well with pears, it would probably go well with any variety of pear.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Tea Selections of Supermarkets

Any tea connoisseur knows that supermarkets are not the stronghold of tea culture in the U.S. Many of them sell only one or two loose teas, usually Twinings, although my local Pathmark surprised me when I picked up a loose organic sencha from Two Leaves and a Bud the other day.

But the tea selection of supermarkets does vary greatly from one to the next. Wegmans, a supermarket chain in the mid-Atlanic, has a surprising selection of its own brand of tea, which, from what I've heard from others, is not bad. RateTea lists Wegmans teas, which include loose teas and even a few single-region teas; I have yet to try any of them, but one has received a favorable review on the site.

As someone who cares a lot about "public food culture" in the U.S. (and hopes to influence it), I like to keep an eye on what is for sale in supermarkets, even if I'm not going to shop there. I just want to get a sense on what's going on out there in society, so that I can get a greater sense of how I fit into the picture. Here's what is in my local PathMark:

Doesn't look terribly exciting, right? But note the tea strainers hanging in front of the numerous boxes of teabags from various mainstream brands. They're not the best choice of a tea infuser, in my opinion--I'd rather see a Finum Basket Infuser myself, or something similar--but it's good that they at least sell them. The only loose tea I found in this part of the store was Twinings, and they only had a few varieties, but hidden in the "organic" and "health food" section of the store was the Two Leaves and a Bud tea I mentioned above.

It seems that the retail industry in the U.S. seems to consider tea more of a "health food" item than a mainstream food item. Fitting with this, the Newark Natural Foods Co Op had a bit of a better selection:

Although these are better teas (Brands like Numi, Choice Organics, and a few more esoteric brands), they are almost all tea bags. I found this disappointing. It kind of fits with the whole "whole foods" mentality that I often hear people criticize: people will buy organic and fair-trade certified products, often at higher prices, but they don't get at the core issue--the fact that they're paying for all this packaging, the fact that they're still spending their money on an industrialized food supply. I've even heard people argue that all these organic brands are essentially "greenwashing"...I'm not sure I'd go that far, I do think there's a difference between having the certification and not having it, and that it is probably worth paying for. But I also think it might be better in the interest of sustainability to just buy high-quality loose tea, even if it has no organic or fair trade certification. And I'm not seeing this transition reflected in the offerings of even health food stores...yet.

There's a little bit of good news out there, but we still have a long way to go.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Tea Company Websites Conveying Instant Legitimacy (or lack thereof) Through the "About Us" Page

The web can often be a place of short attention spans and instantaneous judgments. With hundreds of different online retailers of tea, one cannot possibly take the time to even fully explore every tea company website, even if you're a serious tea blogger, webmaster of a tea website, or a die-hard tea enthusiast. An interesting book, Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, explores the question of instantaneous, intuitive decisions, and finds that in a number of ways, people can actually be quite accurate with snap decisions.

Looking at a Tea Company Website:

Different people look for different things on a website. I'm less of an artistic person, and while good visual design does get my attention and make a positive impression, I'm not willing to write off a company just because their website is minimal, blocky, or unprofessional looking--nor am I willing to consider a company legitimate just because their design is outstanding. So what do I look for?

I go straight to the "About Us" page.

If your website does not have an "About" or "About Us" page (or equivalent page by some other name), that sends up a red flag. What kind of legitimate business would ignore the opportunity to present basic information to curious potential customers looking to learn more about a company?

Bad or Meaningless "About Us" Pages:

What is perhaps worse than no about page, however, is a trite page spewing platitudes about how the company is committed to bringing you the best teas, without actually giving any factual background information about the company or useful information about the company's history or focus. This communicates, like above, a lack of business confidence and know-how. A confident business advertises: Here I am, this is who I am, this is what makes me special.

An ideal About page:

I strongly prefer when the about us page identifies the owner(s) of the company, where the company is located, when it was founded, and any relevant history of the company. These things all serve to make the company seem more personal, and they also make me more interested in and curious about the company. Information about location can provide an extra boost of interest if the company happens to be based in a city or town which I am familiar with. But the most important point of all to include is what makes your particular tea company unique.

The about us page is an awesome opportunity--one of the best opportunities to make a sales pitch for your business. If someone actually comes to this page and is reading it, they are interested in learning more about your company, and they are specifically looking for more information. This is as good as it gets! Don't blow this prime opportunity!

Highlight your strengths. Do you sell some unusual Chinese oolongs that are hard to obtain elsewhere? Or some single-estate tea from Malawi that is inexpensive, subtly flavored, and that no one has heard of? Do you specialize in Ceylon or Indian teas from a particular region? Does your company offer innovative herbal blends? Or classic British-style teas? Are you going above and beyond with your use of sustainable packing materials? Do you sell any teas sourced directly from small, farmer-owned tea gardens or cooperatives?

Link up your page with an active blog and/or active social media accounts. One of the best ways to establish legitimacy is through recommendations of others. If you're actively participating in a community of tea enthusiasts, interacting with other tea drinkers, tea companies, and people in the world of tea, this helps to demonstrate that the facts on your website can be trusted in a way that cannot be conveyed by just writing something on your site alone.

Link only to actively maintained accounts and sites. If you don't use your twitter account, don't link to it--an account with a single tweet 6 months ago draws attention to the fact that you don't use this type of social media. If you don't use it, that's fine, but don't draw attention to this fact. The same goes for blogs. Try to post at least once a month, ideally more often, on a given type of media (facebook, blog, twitter, etc.) if you are going to link to it.

It doesn't need to be named "about":

Lastly, you can call your about page anything you want, especially if you want to get more personal. Chicago Tea Garden says "Our Story", which I like because it brings to mind the process that led the company to be founded; Zen Tara Tea says "Who We Are", which I like because it's very direct. Just make sure the page is intuitively named and easy to locate. Since it's the second page that many people will view after landing on your site (I've found this same pattern on all websites I've ever administered), it makes sense to link to it from every page on your site.

I hope this page can encourage some of the newer and smaller companies to fill out their about us page! I'm always surprised when I am looking for more info and don't find it! It takes only a brief amount of time to fill out such a page, and it will convey instant legitimacy, at least, to readers like me.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Aerial Photo of Cleveland's Chinatown

When I lived in Cleveland, Ohio, there was an Asian supermarket in the Asia Plaza at the corner of Payne Ave. and 30th street. For orientation, the highway is I-90, the street at the bottom of the picture is Superior and at the top is Chester. I bought some interesting tea at this store; it was the first place I bought a number of teas, including hojicha and genmaicha. While flying this summer, I changed in Cleveland and was able to photograph it:

The store has since moved, but is still in the same neighborhood. This photo brings back memories for me; I used to walk around the neighborhood pictured here. It doesn't look like much from the air, but this is the heart of Cleveland's Chinatown, and there are a lot of great places scattered about, including a few places to buy decent tea, and some fabulous Cantonese restaurants, serving dim sum.

This Chinatown was very important in the development of my palate; it was the first place I ate really good and really authentic Chinese food on a regular basis. I tried a whole bunch of new types of vegetables, mushrooms, spices, new combinations of things. I fell in love with Cantonese-style noodle soups and different from the fare served in most Americanized Chinese restaurants. Most importantly, I began to grasp the true richness of Asian culinary traditions, and to see the degree to which these traditions have been cheapened and made into a mass, uniform culture in America. But it also made me feel hopeful...Chinese food can taste like this? It was similar to the awakening I had when trying my first cup of green high-mountain oolong from Taiwan...tea can taste like this?

One of my favorite restaurants is Li Wah; it's still there, right in the plaza circled on the map. Other favorites places to eat in the neighborhood include Bo Loong, and Tom's Seafood Restaurant. I think they're both still there; some of my other favorite places have since closed, but others have opened up. Cleveland is a great city and I often miss living there, especially when I'm starting to get hungry.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Why Try New Brands of Tea?

Most serious tea drinkers have one or two favorite brands of tea or tea companies that they like to regularly order from. Humans are often creatures of habit, and it's easy to settle into the routine of ordering from the same company over and over again. This is especially true when dealing with tea companies with large catalogs, like my good old favorite Upton Tea Imports, where it is virtually impossible to exhaust the myriad of offerings of tea of different varieties and from different regions of the world.

But are people with such regular purchasing habits missing something?

The World of Tea is Always Changing:

There are so many tea companies out there; RateTea's list of brands of tea currently stands at 189, and there are many important companies that are still not included in that list. I'm constantly astonished both by the number of new tea companies being started, and the uniqueness of some of the newer companies' approaches. This is particularly true of companies that are leaders in sustainability--many of these companies are relatively new. For example, Rishi Tea, now a major force in the U.S. tea market, was founded in 1997.

However, Rishi's founding is old news compared to a number of other companies. Innovative tea companies are continuously being founded. Shanti Tea, a Canadian company, and Tony Gebely's Chicago Tea Garden both come to mind; both of these companies have a number of unique offerings, completely unlike anything you'll find elsewhere, and both were founded in 2009.

I know this post is not doing justice to all the amazing tea companies out there so my apologies in advance to other new, innovating companies.

What have I learned from trying teas from different companies?

They're different. Besides the difference in what particular types of tea are offered (which in itself is important), often, trying the same style of tea from different companies will reveal substantial differences. This is true both of companies that blend their teas, and of those that select unblended teas. Different companies cater to different tastes, and in a few cases, I've even noticed patterns and trends that seem to carry across teas of different styles, from a given company. For example, I've found that Adagio teas tends to seek out lighter, sweeter, more aromatic teas that tend to be less full-bodied. And the Darjeeling teas I tried from Fresh Darjeeling Tea (another recent startup, I might add) all had a noticeable vegetal quality in common to them--one absent in a number of other Darjeeling teas.

So the lesson is?

Get out there and try tea from new companies. You will be surprised what you find!