Category Archives: Styles & Blends

Curing your mate gourd

Curing your mate gourd header

If my last post (Yerba mate in a gourd) inspired you to try the traditional South American method of drinking yerba mate, you’ll need to get yourself a mate gourd.

As a reminder, it’s pronounced MAH-tay, it’s spelled “mate” in Spanish, and often spelled “maté” in English as a hypercorrection to differentiate it from the English word “mate.”

You can find mate gourds in many tea shops and just about any place that sells loose-leaf yerba mate. There are zillions of online sources as well, but if you like being able to see the actual gourd you’ll be buying, you’ll probably end up in a brick-and-mortar shop.

Once you get the gourd home, you don’t just start drinking from it. Before using your new gourd for the first time, you’ll need to cure it to assure the best flavor and longest gourd life. Here’s the process:

  1. Put a couple of tablespoons of dry yerba mate leaf in your gourd.
  2. Fill it all the way to the top with hot water, but NOT boiling water! Boiling water can crack your gourd.
  3. Let it sit for 24 hours, and then dump out the liquid and the leaves. Don’t drink it. It will taste horrible.
  4. Thoroughly rinse the inside of the gourd with hot water.
  5. Gently scrape the inside of the gourd with a spoon. Don’t use a knife. Be careful scraping around the stem at the bottom; if you take out the stem, your gourd will leak.
  6. Dry the gourd completely. Set it upside down on a drying rack or prop it up where air can circulate and moisture can drip out.

Congratulations! Your gourd is now ready to use.

You only have to go through this curing process once, but you’ll want to make sure to rinse and dry completely after each use or you risk growing mold inside it. Don’t use soap! It can soak into the porous surfaces of the gourd and ruin the flavor of the mate next time you use it. A good rinse with warm water will do the trick.

Over time, the inside of your gourd will become stained, taking on the green color of the mate leaf. Don’t worry about it. That’s just a sign of a well-seasoned gourd.


Yerba mate in a gourd


Mate in a gourd header

Let’s get this out of the way first: is it spelled yerba mate or maté? Normally, when words from other languages are adopted into English, their accent marks go away. In this case, it’s the other way around. In both Spanish and Portuguese, the word is spelled mate and pronounced MAH-tay. No accent mark is used, because it would shift the emphasis to the 2nd syllable. The word maté in Spanish means “killed.”

In the United States, people unfamiliar with the drink see “yerba mate” written on a jar in a tea shop and pronounce mate to rhyme with late. So it has become accepted in English to add the accent above the e just to help us pronounce the word right. Linguists call this a hypercorrection.

Yerba, on the other hand, is spelled consistently in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, but the pronunciation varies depending on where you are. As you move across South America, it shifts from YER-ba to JHER-ba.

Directly translated, a mate is a gourd, and yerba is an herb, so yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis) is literally the herb you drink from a gourd. I don’t really care which way you spell (or pronounce) the word as long as you give this delicious drink a try!

Mate plant

A yerba mate tree in the wild. Thanks to Wikimedia for the image.

Yerba mate is a species of holly that contains caffeine (not, as previously thought, some related molecule called mateine). It grows in Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay, and is the caffeinated beverage of choice for many people who live in those countries.

In the U.S., mate is usually made like tea, with the leaves steeped in boiling water for a few minutes and then removed. This, however, isn’t the way Argentinian gauchos (cowboys) been drinking mate in South America for centuries.

Mate gourds

Some gourds and bombillas from Phoenix Pearl Tea. The one in the back is a leather-wrapped gourd, and the tall one isn’t a gourd, but wood carved out from a holly branch.

The process uses four elements: dried yerba mate leaves, hot water, a gourd (mate), and a bombilla (straw). Bombilla is another word that varies in pronunciation in different parts of South America, ranging from BOM-bee-ya to BOM-beezh-a.

Drinking mate was a social time for the gauchos and still is throughout much of South America. You generally won’t find yerba mate served this way in a U.S. tea shop, because it’s darned near impossible to clean a natural gourd to health department standards.

  1. First, the host (known as the cebador), fills the gourd about 1/2 to 2/3 full of leaf. Yeah, that’s a lot of leaf, but we’ll get a lot of cups out of it!
  2. Next, the cebador shakes or taps the gourd at an angle to get the fine particles to settle to the bottom and the stems and large pieces to rise to the top, making a natural filter bed. Before pressing the bombilla against the leaves, dampening them with cool water helps to keep the filter bed in place.
  3. Finally, the cebador adds the warm water. The water is warm (around 60-70°C or 140-160°F) rather than boiling, because boiling water may cause the gourd to crack—and your lips simply won’t forgive you for drinking boiling water through a metal straw!

In most of the world’s ceremonies, the host goes last, always serving the guests first. The mate ceremony doesn’t work that way. That first gourd full of yerba mate is most likely to get little leaf particles in the bombilla, and can be bitter. So the cebador takes one for the team and drinks the first gourdful.

Green Yerba Mate

Dried yerba mate leaves.

After polishing off the first round, the cebador adds more warm water and passes the gourd to the guest to his or her left. The guest empties the gourd completely (you share the gourd, not the drink!), being careful not to jiggle around the bombilla and upset the filter bed, and passes the gourd back to the cebador.

The process repeats, moving clockwise around the participants, with everyone getting a full gourd of yerba mate. A gourd full of leaves should last for at least 15 servings before it loses its flavor and becomes flat.




The Evolution of Taste

Evolution of taste header

What was the first tea you tasted? If you’re American, it was probably a cheap teabag filled with black tea dust, probably steeped for a long time and possibly drowned in milk and sugar.

If you have a taste for adventure, you probably tried a few other things later on. Earl Grey, perhaps, or possibly a pot of nondescript green tea at the Chinese restaurant down the street. Then maybe — just maybe — you stopped into your Friendly Neighborhood Indie Tea Shop™ and had your mind blown by an amazing oolong or a mind-blowing pu-erh. Now you want to taste all the tea!

Congratulations, you’ve just become the perfect candidate to join the tea tasting club at my shop (the Phoenix Pearl Tea Tavern), but let’s leave that for another blog post.

Thankful to have left that cruddy old Lipton behind, you plow forth into the tea world. You taste exotic green teas like genmaicha (roasted rice tea), hōjicha (roasted green tea), and kukicha (twig tea). You savor delicate white teas like silver needle. You chase down both sides of the pu-erh spectrum, sampling rich complex sheng and deep earthy shu. You try the full range of oolongs, from buttery jade to crisp Wuyi. You might even be lucky enough to find a tea shop with a yellow tea. Wow.

But you’ve left the black teas behind, your impressions tainted from those teabags you drank back before you became enlightened.

Yesterday, I taught a tea class on the teas of China. In it, we tasted all of the major tea styles, and sampled our way through five prime tea-growing provinces (Anhui, Fujian, Jiangsu, Yunnan, and Zhejiang). There were oohs and ahs over the bai mudan white, the roasted tieguanyin (Iron Goddess of Mercy) oolong, and the longjing (dragonwell) green. But do you know what stopped everyone cold in their tracks? The black teas.

I pulled out my favorite Keemun mao feng. If you’ve never tried one of these, stop reading now, buy yourself a bag, and come back. Ready? Okay. Let’s continue.

Keemun mao feng

It’s easy to fall in the trap of considering black tea the “cheap stuff” and all of the other varieties the “good stuff” (except for that pond scum the Chinese restaurant down the street thinks of as green tea, but we’ll just ignore those guys). Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Keemun mao feng has a lot going on. It’s rich and complex, lighter than you’d expect, and if you consider grocery-store-brand teabags representative of black tea, this stuff will open your eyes. The people in my class kept commenting on how many layers of flavor this tea has, on how it changes as you hold it on your tongue, and the subtle sweetness they picked up in this (completely unsweetened) cup of tea.

Note, by the way, the steeping instructions in my slide above. You may like yours steeped longer than the two minutes I recommend. That’s fine. I’m no tea Nazi. Drink it the way you like it.

Next, we tried a dian hong, also known as a Golden Yunnan. It flips you clear across the flavor spectrum, with that color in the glass saying “oolong” as the flavor says “black tea.”

Dian Hong

If you’re at this point in your exploration of the tea world, congratulations! You’ve left the cheap black tea behind and opened yourself up to a whole world of other tea styles. Now it’s time to come back home to black teas. Try the two I talked about above. Explore the vast difference between India’s tea-growing regions by drinking a first-flush Darjeeling, a hearty Assam, and a rich “bitey” Nilgiri. Sample the Rift Valley teas from Kenya (the largest tea exporting country in the world). Island hop with some Java and Sumatra tea. Drink a liquid campfire with a steaming cup of lapsang souchong.

Once you’ve experienced the range of flavors, textures, terroirs, and aromas from top-notch loose-leaf black teas, you’re still not done. Now is the time to turn your newly-expanded palate loose on some blended teas, like high-end English Breakfast. Go back and taste some of the flavored black teas like Earl Grey. Play with some masala chai and some tea lattes (try a strong Java tea made with frothed vanilla soy milk!). Start experimenting with iced tea, brewing it strong and pouring it over ice.

You may decide that you’ve moved on from black tea and that’s great. Or you may just find that you’ve developed a whole new appreciation for that stuff that got you started on tea in the first place.

As I write this, I’m sipping on a 2017 1st flush Darjeeling from the Glenburn estate. It’s very different from last year’s, when the picking was delayed by heavy late rains. You’d swear this was oolong tea. It’s extremely different from teas picked at that estate later in the year. I don’t know what (if anything) we’re going to end up with for a 2018 1st flush, as many of the estates in Darjeeling were left in horrible condition after this summer’s strikes, so if you have some Darjeeling tea you like, don’t waste it!

A Tea Journey: Your Personal Tea Cupping Journal

Tea Journal TwG blog header

Developing a good palate for tea really requires keeping notes. Remembering what teas you do and don’t like needs notes, too, for most of us. And I’ve been searching for a tea journal that I really liked for a while. There are some pretty good ones out there, but I’m an individualist. I had to do my own thing. And my own thing is called A Tea Journey: Your Personal Tea Cupping Journal.

(Caution: blatant self-promotion ahead)

This guided journal is designed to guide you through the next 100 teas you taste. Keeping notes about each cup of tea encourages you to drink your tea actively, paying attention to taste, aroma, appearance, and how it feels in your mouth. When you journal about it, tea becomes an experience to savor and linger over instead of just another drink.

Tea is a subjective experience. Between these covers, nobody’s opinion matters but your own. Don’t worry about what other people think of a particular tea; just record your own impressions.

Each tea page is numbered, so you can see at a glance just how many teas you have tasted and written about. Some tea journals (especially the cupping journals intended for experts and aficionados) use terminology that may not be clear to a beginner. At the front of the journal, I included descriptions of the common tea styles and some related tisanes (rooibos, honeybush, yerba maté, and so forth). Also, on the page facing tea number one, I included short descriptions of what to write in each section.


Comparative cupping is a great way to develop your palate. Get two similar teas and try them side by side, recording your impressions on facing pages of the journal.

Obviously, the best possible Christmas present for a tea lover would be one of these journals and a big box of tea — and maybe a copy of Myths & Legends of Tea.

Enjoy, and thank you for putting up with my utterly shameless self-promotion this week!

While writing this blog post, I was enjoying a cup of Houjicha, a roasted Japanese tea about as different from traditional Matcha, Sencha or Gyokuro as you could possibly get. The roasting adds a nutty flavor and a toasty aroma that go beautifully with a cold, windy Montana day.

Tea Around the World

Tea Around the World header

I came across a fascinating article the other day with pictures (and short captions) of tea as they drink it in 22 countries around the world. Obviously, picking one tea — and one style of drinking it — to represent an entire country is difficult, but they did an admirable job of it. What I appreciated, though, is that it got me thinking about the way we experience tea from other countries.

I was rather distressed that the caption they chose for the U.S. was:

Iced tea from the American South is usually prepared from bagged tea. In addition to tea bags and loose tea, powdered “instant iced tea mix” is available in stores.

Eek! As much as I enjoy a cup of iced tea on a hot day, I rarely stoop to tea bags, and never to “instant iced tea mix.” If you are one of my international readers (when I last checked, about half of my blog’s visitors were outside the U.S.), please don’t judge us based on that article!

Despite that, the article made me think about something: When we experiment with the drinks from other countries, we usually prepare them our own way. Yerba mate, for example. The traditional method of making mate in Argentina, Uruguay, or Paraguay is in a gourd, with water that Americans would call “warm.” Americans trying out the drink usually make it just like a cup of tea, using boiling water in a cup or mug.

With tea, many of us would have difficulty drinking a cup of tea like they do in another country. Follow that link above and look at their description of Tibetan tea (#5 on the list). I don’t know about where you live, but here in Montana, I can’t easily lay my hands on yak butter.

Nonetheless, it’s a lot of fun to research how people eat and drink in other countries and try to duplicate the experience. Even if you’re not doing it exactly right at first, it makes you feel connected with other people and their cultures.

Pouring Moroccan Mint tea

The teapot and glasses are as much a part of the experience as the tea is, as chelle marie explains

When my wife and I were dating, we discovered a Moroccan restaurant that we both loved: Menara in San Jose, California. They had fabulous food, belly dancers, authentic music, and — of course — Moroccan mint tea.

Kathy and I loved enjoyed watching them pour the tea as much as we enjoyed drinking it. We sat cross-legged on pillows around a low table. The server would place the ornate glasses — yes, glasses for hot tea — on the table and hold the metal teapot high in the air to pour the tea.

I am not a big fan of mint teas, generally, and I do not sweeten my tea, but I absolutely loved the tea at Menara (and no matter what my wife tells you, it had nothing to do with being distracted by the belly dancer).

When I made Moroccan mint tea at home, it never came out the same. There was always something off about the taste. I tried different blends, but just couldn’t duplicate the flavor. Then I decided to try duplicating the technique.


Take a look at that picture to the right (a marvelously-staged and shot picture from chelle marie). Look closely at the glass. That, as it turns out, is what I was missing. Pouring the tea from a height does more than just look good; it aerates the tea, which changes the way it tastes and smells.

You’ll find the same thing with a well-whisked bowl of matcha (Japan), a traditionally-made cup of masala chai (India), a frothy-sweet boba tea (Taiwan), or a cold, refreshing Southern sweet tea (USA).

If there’s a tea shop or restaurant in your area that makes the kind of tea you want to try, get it there first. Otherwise, read a few blog posts, watch a few videos, check out a good book, and give it your best try.

Tea is more than just a beverage; it is a window into the cultures that consume it. Embrace the differences. Enjoy the differences. Enjoy the tea!

Jasmine Tea

Jasmine Tea Header

Even purists who eschew “flavored” teas will often enjoy a cup of jasmine green tea. Perhaps it is because when you look at the loose tea, all you see is tea leaves; there are no visible indications that your tea leaves have been adulterated in any way. Perhaps it is because the affect of the jasmine in a well-made jasmine tea is delicate and subtle. Perhaps it is the rich history of jasmine teas.

Jasmine first made its way to China from Persia (now known as Iran) over 1,700 years ago, and it took hundreds of years before it was used to scent tea. Even then, it spread quite slowly, and it wasn’t until the Qing Dynasty, which began in 1644, that it became widespread.

The making of jasmine tea is quite different from typical flavored teas. Most flavored teas are either blends, where dry ingredients are mixed together, or tea leaves sprayed with flavor extracts, like Earl Grey with its bergamot oil. Jasmine tea, on the other hand, is scented rather than flavored.

In the traditional process, jasmine flowers are picked early in the morning, when the blossoms are still tightly rolled. Trays of processed and dried tea leaves (usually, but not always, green tea) are stacked in alternation with trays of jasmine. The trays have woven mesh or screens as bottoms, so as the jasmine blossoms open up and release their scent, it travels freely into the tea leaves over the course of about four hours.

jasmine green tea

A typical loose-leaf jasmine green tea from the Fujian province in China.

The tea leaves pick up moisture from the flowers along with the jasmine scent, so they have to be re-dried before they can be packaged. In the finest quality jasmine teas, this scenting process may be repeated half a dozen times or more. The finished tea has no jasmine blossoms in it — only the scent that has transferred.

How you prepare a cup of jasmine tea depends on the base tea used. If it is made form a green tea, as most of them are, then you’ll want to use 175-185°F (80-85°C) water, and steep for three minutes or less. Using boiling water is a quick way to ruin a good cup of jasmine tea — or any other green tea, for that matter — by bringing out unwanted bitterness.

Grades of jasmine tea vary with the quality of the tea and the process used. One of the popular higher-end styles involves tea leaves that are tightly rolled, often known as “jasmine pearls.”

jasmine dragon tears

Jasmine Dragon Tears from Red Lodge Books & Tea — a variety of jasmine pearls.

When drinking jasmine pearls, seven balls are placed in a small cup. Seven is considered good luck, so with jasmine pearls you don’t weigh them out or measure them in a tablespoon. Each rolled ball contains two leaves attached to a bud, which will slowly unfurl when the hot water is added.

Unlike most loose tea, jasmine pearls are infused right in the cup with no screens or filters, and you don’t remove them before drinking. The unbroken leaves assure that if you sip carefully, you won’t get a mouthful of leaf. If you’re drinking jasmine pearls with friends, the host should make sure that there’s always more hot water available to keep refilling the cups.

Jasmine blossoms certainly aren’t the only flowers used to scent tea — I’ve written about Vietnamese Lotus Tea, for example — but jasmine is definitely the best-known and most popular.

NEWSFLASH! Most Brits don’t know how to make tea!

Brits don't know how to make tea!

Cor, I’m gobsmacked! The world’s gone barmy! The Telegraph, that bastion of Britishness, has declared in no uncertain terms that 80% of Britons don’t know how to make tea! Not only that, it’s scientists that say so. Scientists! Why, just look at the headline:

Telegraph Article

Okay, let’s all just keep calm and carry on here. I have certainly addressed the subject of making the perfect cup of tea before. And scientists have weighed in, too. Why, there’s a British standards document from the Royal Society of Chemistry that explains it step by step. Even George Orwell defined the ideal cup (although I disagree with him).

Keep Calm and Make Tea (properly)So how do we deal with this gormless assertion from The Telegraph? We shall take it one item at a time, beginning with the definition of knowing how to make a cup of tea.

You see, the world is filled with tea Nazis: people who aren’t happy with figuring out how to make their tea; they have the cheek to tell you how to make your tea. I am a much more mellow fellow myself. I believe that if you make a cup of tea and you enjoy it, you’re doing it right. You may not be doing it my way, or the Royal Society of Chemistry’s way, or George Orwell’s way, but you’re doing it in a way that makes you happy. It doesn’t get much more “right” than that.

But let’s set my sappy altruism aside for a moment and examine what The Telegraph and the scientists at University College London have to say. They do, as it turns out, have some quite valid assertions — although their science reporter may have been a bit hasty in his conclusions.

“Despite drinking 165 million cups of tea each day, scientists believe that most Brits do not allow the leaves to infuse long enough for the complex flavours to emerge. Researchers at University College London and the British Science Association claim tea must be allowed to steep for up to five minutes, far longer than the toe-tapping two minutes allowed by most drinkers.”

I’m going to start out by making an assumption here, and that is that we’re specifically talking about black tea. I make my assumption based on the fact that their entire article assumes you’re adding milk to your tea (I have never met anyone who added milk to white or green tea, although I did meet one sad little man who put milk in his oolong), and that you’re using boiling water, which is perfect for black tea or pu-erh but ruins white or green tea.

One of the characteristics prized by British tea aficionados is astringency (which Lipton’s calls “briskness”). Your average breakfast tea in the U.K. is steeped until it is quite “brisk” (which I call undrinkably bitter). The astringency is then cut with milk, and possibly sugar as well. Generally speaking, when I want milk I drink a glass of milk. When I want tea, I want it to taste like tea. I take mine black, which means I use shorter steep times to control the astringency.

“And they advise using a pot rather than a tea-bag in a mug to allow convection currents to swirl tea leaves fully through the water.”

Okay, I have to agree with them there. Teabags are evil, and here’s why:

no teabags

Dried tea leaves swell as you steep them. To extract the maximum flavor (and caffeine, and antioxidants…) from the leaves, they need water flow around them. Teabags were introduced for convenience, and they are, indeed, convenient. On the downside, though, they don’t give the leaves room to swell, and they severely limit the flow of water around the leaves. To address this problem, tea makers generally don’t put high-quality whole-leaf tea in the bags. Instead, they use finely crushed leaves, known as “fannings” or “dust.” This increases the surface area exposed to water, allows them to make the bags smaller, and (here’s the evil part) use the lowest-quality tea that was passed over by all of the tea makers that buy whole leaf — what I refer to as “floor sweepings.”

The article goes on to quote Mark Miodownik, Professor of Materials and Society at University College London:

“It’s obviously subjective but I feel people are missing out on a drink which could be so much more sophisticated because they don’t wait for the tea to brew long enough. Tea is made of 30,000 different chemicals, it’s a very complex thing and those molecules take time to emerge and influence each other.”

He could well have stopped after the first three words. It is obviously subjective, indeed. Perhaps the first 10,000 chemicals that emerge are the ones you find tastiest, and the last 10,000 are the ones that I prefer. Should we both steep our tea the same? Of course not.

On an unrelated note, I sometimes feel that my formal training in electrical engineering and computer science does not really qualify me to speak as an expert on tea. Seeing The Telegraph quote a professor of “materials and society” as a tea expert makes me feel better.

Back to the point at hand, Mr. Miodownik goes on to say something that reinforces my point from above:

“Fair enough if you want a hot milky drink, but then why drink tea?”

The article explains that the UCL people have an answer to the question of whether the milk should be added before or after the tea is poured. They don’t, however, address the issue of whether the milk should be there in the first place. That’s because it’s subjective. Some of us prefer tea, instead of hot milky drinks!

I also particularly enjoyed their discussion of a tea study by a milk company, which quite refutes the premise of the article.

A study carried out by Cravendale milk in 2011 found that the perfect cup of tea needed eight minutes (two minutes with the tea bag or leaves, six more afterwards) before it reaches optimum flavour and temperature.

UCL tells us that tea must be steeped “far longer than the toe-tapping two minutes allowed by most drinkers,” but Cravendale says that a two minute steep is just fine as long as it can sit in milk for six minutes after it is steeped.

So who do we believe? The scientists or the milk company?

How about neither?

Make your tea the way you like to make it. Steep it until it tastes good. If you want to add milk, cream, lemon, sugar, ice cubes, honey sticks, a sprig of mint, a dash of cinnamon, or a soupçon of cayenne, then by all means do so.

As for me, I shall eschew teabags, brew my favorite black tea for 2:30 to 3:00, and sip it straight.

As I write this, I am drinking an 8-year-old aged shu (“ripe”) pu-erh tea from Vital Tea Leaf in Seattle. I started by doing a 20-second “wash,” swirling the leaves in boiling water and then pouring it off. My first infusion was 2:00, and the second was 2:30, as I wanted it a bit stronger. Proper British tea drinkers may want to stop reading now, as I steeped it neither in a mug nor a ceramic teapot, but in a brewing device made of (*gasp*) plastic. After drinking rich, earthy teas like this, it’s hard to go back to plain black tea!

Scottish Breakfast Tea

Scottish Breakfast Tea header

Have you ever sat down to a cup of hot, energizing breakfast tea and wondered what the heck makes it a breakfast blend? You never see anyone selling lunch teas or dinner teas. Why breakfast tea? And what’s the difference between Scottish, Irish, and English breakfast teas? Let me explain!

When we first get up in the morning, most of us aren’t in the mood for something delicate, flowery, and subtle. We want caffeine and we want it now! And by golly, we want to be able to taste it! Breakfast, as any nutritionist will tell you, is the most important meal of the day. You probably haven’t eaten in ten or twelve hours, and you need energy for your morning work. A full-flavored hearty breakfast will overwhelm the taste of a white tea or a jasmine tea, so Americans and Europeans, unlike our Eastern friends, usually go for a black tea (or perhaps a heavily-oxidized oolong) with our breakfast. This is the origin of the “breakfast tea.”

Breakfast teas in the U.K. were originally Chinese tea. When supplies from China were threatened and the British East India Company established tea plantations in Assam, those Indian teas began to replace the Chinese teas at breakfast, and that’s also when they started to become blends rather than straight tea. One of the words you’ll often hear to describe breakfast teas is “malty.” That flavor comes from the Assam teas. Their isn’t a standard formula for any breakfast tea, and no two tea producers will agree on the perfect teas or the perfect blend percentages. Generally, though, the Assam is blended with a strong traditional black tea from Sri Lanka (a Ceylon tea) or Kenya. Some blends are simple combinations of two base teas; some are complex combinations of four or five.

There also isn’t a standard for strength. Generally, though, you can assume that Scottish and Irish breakfast teas will be stronger than English breakfast teas, and when you’re in the U.K., you can count on all of them being served with milk.

An American might start the day with biscuits and sausage gravy with an egg on top — or perhaps a big stack of pancakes. A Scotsman, however, may sit down to a “full breakfast,” which would include eggs, bacon (what an American would call “Canadian bacon” and a Canadian would call “back bacon”), toast, sausage, black pudding, grilled tomato, and — if he’s lucky — some haggis and tattie scones. No wimpy tea will work with a meal like that! It calls for a full pot of Scottish breakfast tea!

At my tea bar, I started out with stock blends for all three breakfast teas. Soon, though, my Scottish heritage gave me the urge to experiment. I’ve known the folks from the Khongea Estate in Assam for a while, and they have a variety that made the perfect start. Lots of malty flavor, lots of caffeine, but not too much astringency. Unlike my ancestors, you see, I don’t put milk in my tea, so I look for less bitterness than most Scots.

After playing around with other teas, I settled on another estate-grown variety as the second ingredient. It’s a fairly high-altitude tea that grows near the base of Mount Kenya. It adds strength and complexity to the Assam, and I decided no other ingredients were needed. Once I was happy with the flavor, I needed a name. Scottish Breakfast Tea is just a bit too boring for me, so I called it “Gary’s Kilty Pleasure.”

Garys Kilty Pleasure logo

For the curious, that’s my plaid in the logo: the Clan Gunn weathered tartan.

I got a very big surprise from this tea. American tea tastes run toward flavored teas. The majority of sales at my tea bar are Earl Grey, masala chai, fruity blends, and the like. Despite that, Gary’s Kilty Pleasure has remained one of the top five sellers for four straight years, out of a field of well over 100 loose teas. The most common comment I get back is that it goes well with milk, but it is perfectly good without — and that makes me happy!

So whether you choose my Scottish breakfast tea (buy it here) or a blend from your favorite supplier, brew it up strong with a hearty breakfast, and get your day off to a great start!

I have started adding a paragraph at the end of each blog post describing the tea I was drinking when I wrote the post. It seems kind of silly at the end of this one! Come on, people. What do you THINK I was drinking?

Most popular teas of 2014

Most Popular Teas of 2014 header

I’m bringing back the old January tradition that I skipped last year, which is reviewing my tea bar’s most popular loose-leaf teas of the previous year. This time, it’s a little different. In the 2011 and 2012 summaries, I just looked at the overall bestsellers. This time, I’m going to break it down by category.

I don’t want my blog to be a commercial for the shop, but on the other hand, I do want to provide links to the tea bar’s website, in case readers are interested in trying out any of these teas. As a compromise, if you see a regular link in this post, it goes to another post in my blog. If you see the name of a tea italicized in square brackets [like this], it goes to that tea’s page on shop’s website.

Black Tea

My Scottish breakfast blend, which I call [Gary’s Kilty Pleasure] remains the top-selling unflavored black tea for the fourth year in a row. There’s something about the complementary maltiness of the estate-grown Assam and strong traditional flavors of the Mount Kenya black teas that really works together.


The classic [organic tieguanyin], a.k.a. Iron Goddess of Mercy, topped the straight oolong charts. It is medium-roasted and lightly-oxidized, using traditional bamboo coal baking techniques. Most of our oolong drinkers like the flavored options, however, and mango was the top flavor of choice.

Green Tea

Overall, [organic Jasmine Green] did the best. There’s something about the delicate aroma of jasmine that really adds to the flavor of a good green tea. Of the unflavored, unscented green teas, it was Dragonwell (longjing) by a big margin!

White Tea

Our new Shou Mei narrowly edged out the [Yin-Zhen Silver Needles Supreme], even though it hasn’t made it to our website yet. On the flavored side, the [Peach Blossom White] blew away all of the competition. We don’t serve many cups of it hot, but it’s far and away the most popular iced tea at the bar.


It’s really hard to pin this one down. We get one answer if we measure sales by the ounce of loose-leaf tea sold, but a very different answer if we take into consideration all of the compressed pu-erh (beeng cha, tuo cha, brick, and so forth). In total mass, this year’s winner would have to be ripe “wild” pu-erh bricks from 2005.

Earl Grey

We have nine different Earl Grey blends, but the organic, fair trade [Ancient Tree Earl Grey] has not only been the number one Earl Grey, but has held a spot in our top three sellers overall for as long as we’ve been selling tea.

Masala Chai

In 2013, we made a scary move. We dropped the Rishi organic masala chai that had been our number-one selling tea and replaced it with a house blend. Several house blends, actually. Our house chai, which is made with estate-grown Assam and our own masala spice blend, did reasonably well, but then serendipity stepped in. We were experimenting around with a caffeine-free option, and blended our spices with rooibos and caramel. The first cup we brewed, Doug looked at me and said, “Oh my God! This is a ginger cookie in a cup!” We named it [Ginger Cookie Chai], and it became our top masala chai, and one of the best-selling teas overall. It also makes a great molasses cookie recipe!

The Holly family

Yerba maté has always been a good seller for us, so we decided to add the other two members of the holly family that produce caffeine: guayusa and yaupon. [Guayusa] became a staff favorite, and soon surpassed yerba maté. It’s an amazing drink that we just can’t get enough of!


We sell a lot of rooibos, and I am still surprised that the green rooibos outsells red rooibos by a factor of three. Yes, [Green Rooibos], which most Americans haven’t even heard of, is one of the top 15 sellers out of the 150+ teas and tisanes we sell. When it comes to flavored rooibos, [Montana Gold], a caffeine-free blend from our friends at Montana Tea & Spice not only handily tops the list of rooibos-based blends, but was our #1 seller overall.

Other herbals

When you think of herbal tea, what’s the first herb that pops into your mind? Probably chamomile. Personally, I’m not a big chamomile drinker, which probably explains why none of my chamomile blends compete with [Evening in Missoula], another complex and wonderful blend from Montana Tea & Spice.

While writing this blog post, I was drinking an organic Iron Goddess of Mercy (tieguanyin), as I so often do. It’s a soft and flavorful oolong that’s lightly baked and medium oxidized. I usually use my leaves at least three or four times, brewing it with 175-degree water. I make my first infusion light (2 1/2 minutes), and then add 30 second to each subsequent infusion.

Comparing Apples and … Tea?

Comparing Apples and Tea

On our way back from a book conference in Tacoma, Washington, my wife pointed out that we were passing an awful lot of stands selling fresh apples. Since it was the season, we picked a big place and stopped.

What an experience!

I knew there were different varieties of apples (Granny Smith, Red Delicious, Fuji…), but I had no idea how many there were. Different colors, sizes, and flavors. Apples that are great for munching, others great for cider, and still others great for applesauce. There are over 7,500 cultivars of apple, and even though this farm had fewer than 50 of them, I was completely and utterly overwhelmed.

And then the epiphany hit me: The way I felt looking at these apples, that deer-in-the-headlights look on my face, was just what I’ve seen on people’s faces the first time they walk into my tea bar. As an aficionado, I walk into a tea shop and start hunting for things I’ve never tried, strange varieties I’ve heard of but never seen, and old favorites that they may bring in from a different source than I do. To a newcomer, though, those 150 jars behind the tea bar might as well be full of pixie dust as tea.

The way the apple farmer led us through our selection is different from the way we guide people at the tea bar, but the general philosophy is the same. His job, like our job, is to help a customer pick something that will make them happy. if you’re going to be making apple butter, he’s eager to help you find just the right apples and suggest just the right procedure. That way, you’ll be back the next time you need apples. We do the same with tea.

Sometimes, we have the customer who knows exactly what they want. “Do you have a jasmine green tea?” they’ll ask. Or, “Can I get an English Breakfast Tea with a spot of milk?” Those folks are easy.

We also have the people who have a general idea of what they’re looking for, but they’re eager to experiment. “I’m looking for a cup of strong tea. What’s the difference between your Rwandan and your Malawi black teas?”

But the challenge comes when somebody has no idea what they’re after. That’s when we play a kind of twenty-questions game.

Q. Are you looking for a straight tea or something flavored?

A. Oh, just straight tea, I think.

Q. Do you like black tea? Green tea? Oolong?

A. I like green tea.

Q. Do you prefer the grassy Japanese styles or the pan-fired Chinese styles?

A. I had a really good Japanese tea one time that tasted really nutty. They called it green tea but the leaves were brown.

Q. Was it roasted? Does the name Houjicha sound familiar?

A. I’m not sure.

Q. Here. Smell this.

A. That smells great! I’ll have a cup of that!

This kind of conversation is what it takes to guide someone to something new. Hopefully something they’ll like so much that they’ll keep coming back for more. To expedite the process, we’re reorganizing the teas behind the bar.

On one side, we’re putting straight tea — and some straight herbs and related drinks like rooibos, honeybush, yerba mate, guayusa, and so forth. They’re organized first by style, so all of the white teas are together and all of the pu-erh teas are together. Within that grouping, they’re organized by origin: Ceylons, Assams, Kenyans, and so forth.

The other side has the flavored and scented teas, and it’s organized quite differently. Most people looking for a mango tea really couldn’t care less whether the base is white tea or green tea. All they care about is whether it has caffeine (and whether it tastes like mango, of course). To that end, the flavored side is grouped by flavor profiles: minty, fruity, flowery, and so forth. All of the berry teas are together, all of the masala chai is together, all of the Earl Grey is together, etc.

Hopefully, this will be a big help to people who think visually. They will be able to scan the jars and narrow in on something they like. When we’re done, we’ll post some pictures.

In the meantime, if you are a tea retailer, keep on talking to people. If you’re a tea consumer, keep on asking questions!

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