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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!

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?

Making sweet tea on demand

Iced tea

Lemon optional

If my tea bar was in Georgia, sweet tea wouldn’t be a problem for me. I would always have a pitcher or two sitting in the fridge. But here in Montana, the demand for sweet tea is pretty low. If I serve three or four glasses of sweet tea in a week, that’s a lot. Why is that a problem? Because properly-prepared sweet tea is made in advance. Ideally, it should sit overnight, but a few hours is probably okay. It will keep for a little while, but not indefinitely. If I make it by the pitcher, I’m going to end up throwing away most of it.

My goals are simple: I want it to taste like sweet tea (in the opinion of my Southern friends), and I have to be able to prepare it from scratch in about five minutes.

I’ve been fiddling with solutions to the problem, and I think I’ve come up with an acceptable solution. My method is based on my 20-ounce iced tea glasses, my ice machine (which makes very small cubes), and various other things specific to Red Lodge Books & Tea. Obviously, you’ll need to tweak it a bit for your own use.

For sweetening iced teas (especially boba tea), I keep simple syrup on hand all of the time. We make it using equal quantities of boiling water and plain sugar, and then cool it down to room temperature. It’s much easier than trying to mix granulated sugar into cold tea.

First, I add a tablespoon of strong black tea to the infuser — I use our Irish Breakfast Tea, which is a blend of Assam and Tanzanian tea. The leaves are finely broken, which maximizes the surface area for steeping.

To the leaves, I add four tablespoons of simple syrup and about 10oz of boiling water. I suppose I could use some alternate method for sweetening the tea, but I have never heard a request for diet sweet tea. If it’s not real sweet tea with sugar, it’s just sweetened tea, I suppose.

While it is steeping, I fill the glass all the way to the brim with ice.

I steep the tea for five minutes. I would never steep a cup of Irish breakfast tea that long for myself — especially with that much leaf — because I’m a bit of a purist and I don’t add milk or sugar. Steeping that long makes plain tea very bitter. Using this much sugar, however, offsets that bitterness, and adding it to during the steep makes the tea taste different than if it’s added after the fact.

When the tea is poured over the ice, most of the ice will melt. Add a straw and you’re good to go.

Random observations from the tea bar

Looking for something pithy and educational about tea today? Well, you picked the wrong blog post. Today I am just posting a free association of recent observations and happenings at the my tea bar.

Never give up. Never surrender.

I love pu-erh tea. I have far more of it in the tea bar than our local population can justify, especially if you include the “dark tea,” which is tea fermented like a pu-erh but not produced in Yunnan. I have grown used to having to explain pu-erh to every person I mention it to. It’s part of the education mission of the tea world.

Then, one of my regulars brought in a friend from out of town. He bought a quarter-pound each of Irish Breakfast and my own Scottish Breakfast blend (which I call “Gary’s Kilty Pleasure”). He asked for something different, and I asked if he’d tried pu-erh. He knew what it was! He liked it! We probably spent 15 minutes talking about pu-erh and he bought a tuo-cha (bird’s nest shaped pu-erh cake) and some loose pu-erh. The education efforts of tea shops around the country are paying off!

I hate cheap equipment.

Some of the equipment in the tea bar has worked beautifully since the day we bought it. Some has been a source of endless frustration.

The milk heater/frother units we got from Keurig? One broke in just over 3 months, the other in just under a year. Fragile parts, hard to clean, cheap construction. The ones we got from a company I’d never heard of? Both working beautifully.

Tea timers? I suppose it’s not the manufacturer’s fault that we drop them from time to time. But some timers survive multiple drops and some die after the first.

Frothing wands? I just had to deal with our third dead wand in a year. They really should last more than six months. This just isn’t acceptable.

Never put out pressed tea samples

Found this out the hard way. One of our distributors carries these wonderful little pressed hearts of tea they call Antony & Cleopatra. I thought it was a cool novelty idea and ordered a pound of them. They’re black tea, not a pu-erh like most pressed teas. They are actually halfway decent black tea, which makes them better than just a novelty item. Just drop it in the teapot, pour in boiling water, and in a few minutes you have a cup of tea.

tea hearts

I put a big jar of them (sealed, of course) on the tea bar and a little plate (actually a cute little teapot-shaped teabag holder) in front of the jar with some of the tea hearts on it. Can anyone guess what happened? Anyone? Bueller? Yeah, that’s right. People ate them. Apparently compressed tea leaves make pretty yucky-tasting cookies. Who’d have guessed?

Bleach is your friend

Ever hear commercials for cleaning products that say “even gets out tough tea stains?” There’s a reason for that. Tea stains everything, especially infusers, filters, and teapots. Luckily, a tablespoon of bleach in a pint of water will get rid of all those tea stains in no time flat. Of course, you’ll be rinsing the bleach smell out for a little while, but it’s worth it. Sparkly clean!

Everybody thinks lattes have to have coffee in them

“Latte” is used in English as a short form of the Italian “caffè latte,” which simply means “coffee with milk.” Other drinks can have milk in them, too. Tea lattes are absolutely wonderful drinks. Generally speaking, they have two ingredients: tea and heated/frothed milk. Sometimes a sweetener. So why is it that people keep asking what kind of coffee we add to our tea lattes? They aren’t tea caffè lattes. They are tea lattes.

There. I feel better now.

Deepest Africa – The Tea of Kenya: Stop 5 on the World Tea Tasting Tour

When you think of tea, Africa probably isn’t the first place to pop into your mind, but Kenya is the largest exporter of tea in the world. Tea has revitalized their economy, and tea lovers everywhere became winners. Red Lodge Books & Tea works with family owned plantations in Kenya, and was the first tea bar in the United States to serve Kenya’s unique purple tea.
Kenya Title Slide
Kenya is known for its black tea, but with their expanding tea economy, the country has expanded into other styles. We tasted some green and white tea from Kenya, along with traditional estate-grown Kenyan black teas and with some fun and different tea you just can’t get anywhere else.

The teas we tasted were:

  •  White Whisper
  •  Rift Valley Green Tea
  •  Golden Safari (black)
  •  Lelsa Estate FBOP (black)
  •  Royal Tajiri (black)
  •  Purple Tea

A quick bit of background on Kenyan tea before we go any farther. As I mentioned earlier, Kenya is the largest exporter of tea in the world, and the third largest producer (after China and India). Largely because of the population difference, Kenya doesn’t consume as much of its product as China and India do. Kenya produces about 345,000 tons of tea per year, but consumes only about 32,000 tons of that. About 9.6% of the world’s total tea production comes from Kenya.

Those are fascinating statistics, but let’s put some human faces on them. When I wrote my first blog post about purple tea in 2011, I was contacted shortly afterwards by a Kenyan woman by the name of Joy W’Njuguna. I had the pleasure of meeting her in 2012 at the World Tea Expo, as you can see in the picture below. She’s not actually that short — it’s just that I’m six-foot-five and I’m wearing a cowboy hat, so she does look like a tiny little thing.

CAUTION: Before doing business with Royal Tea of Kenya or Joy W’Njuguna, please read my post from May 2014. There are at least a dozen companies (mine included) that report paying for tea and never receiving it!


I’ve learned a lot from Joy about Kenya and its tea industry. One telling tidbit is that about half of Kenya’s tea is produced by corporate farms, and the other half by independent growers. I have a soft spot in my heart for the independents, since I own a (very) independent bookstore and tea bar. Joy, in addition to representing her own family business, is involved in a collaborative export business that represents a coalition of independent family farms in Kenya. The big producers there are focused on producing very high volumes of CTC (Crush, Tear, and Curl) tea that ends up in grocery store teabags. The independent growers are focused instead on producing high-quality handmade tea that will catch the attention of the rest of the world.

I like being able to put a face to the products I buy. I like being able to show my customers a picture and say, “See these people? These people hand-picked the tea you’re drinking. Not machines. We know where the tea came from and we know what we’re buying.”


Some of the people who picked the tea we tasted at this class.

Well, that’s probably enough of a soapbox for the day — or maybe even the month. Let’s move on to the teas that we tasted. If you’re like most of my customers, you didn’t even know Kenya produced a white tea. Heck, until about a year and a half ago, I didn’t know either. So let’s start there:

White Whisper


Silver Needle is one of the flagship teas of China. White Whisper is not a clone, but a Kenyan tea made with the same process. The vast differences in terroir make show from the first sniff. It’s richer and earthier than Silver Needle. Even at the 5:00 steep time we used, it’s less delicate. Personally, though, I love the complexity of this tea. Just pay close attention to that water temperature. You pour boiling water over these leaves and you’re going to ruin it.

Rift Valley Green Tea


The first time I tried this green tea, I wasn’t really impressed. Since it’s a pan-fired tea, I followed the general guidelines for Chinese greens and steeped it for three minutes. Next pass, I read the tasting notes from Royal Tea of Kenya, which recommend a thirty-second steep. Really? Thirty seconds? Yep. That’s all this tea needs.

I love the fact that this tea comes from the slopes of Mount Kenya. Some of my best memories of my trip to Kenya when I was in high school center around that area and the day and night we spent at the Mount Kenya Safari Club. What a wonderful place!

Royal Golden Safari


I’ve written about this tea before. It’s one of my favorite black teas. In this session, as in most of my tastings, I got raised eyebrows from people when I poured this and told them it was a black tea. It brews up pale red with just a touch of astringency and appeals to many oolong drinkers. Unlike most black teas, I regularly get four or five infusions out of Golden Safari.

Lelsa Estate FBOP


Next, we moved on to a much more traditional Kenyan black. This FBOP is one of the ingredients I use in Gary’s Kilty Pleasure (my Scottish breakfast blend). The estate in Kericho participates in the Ethical Tea Partnership program, which I appreciate, and the tea has a deep red color and characteristic Kenyan “jammy” notes. The maltiness blends well with Assam tea, and those who take their tea English-style will appreciate how well it takes milk.

Royal Tajiri


“Tajiri” is the Swahili word for “rich,” and this tea lives up to its name. The finely broken leaves mean an intense extraction. If you’re a black tea lover, this one will give you everything you’re looking for — assertive astringency, deep red (almost black) color, and a very complex flavor profile.

Royal Purple Tea


I’ve written so much about purple tea on this blog (here, here, and here) that I’ll skip the background data — although the picture on that slide is new: the tea on the left is a traditional Camellia sinensis, and the one on the right is the purple tea varietal TRFK306/1. The molecular structure in the background of the slide is the anthocyanin. I didn’t have my shipment of handcrafted purple tea yet (and the sample didn’t last long!), so we were unable to compare the orthodox to the handcrafted. I will put up separate tasting notes on that when my main shipment arrives.

I will note that we brewed the orthodox purple tea for this tasting with 170 degree (F) water instead of boiling, as I’ve done in the past. The cooler water brought out more of the complex undertones of the tea and backed the astringency down, making it more to my liking. We tasted this side by side with and without milk. If you haven’t had this tea with milk before, add a bit just to see the fascinating lavender color that the tea turns!

Nandi Chai


I confess. I was bummed that we didn’t get our handcrafted purple tea in time for this event. I kind of unloaded on Joy about it, and she was good enough to find me something else fascinating and unique for this event: an African chai. The tea (a blend of purple and traditional black) is from Kenya and the spices are all from Ethiopia.

We closed the tasting with this unique chai, and it went over very well. Instead of taking up half of this post talking about it, I’m going to dedicate a whole blog post to Nandi chai in the near future.

This was the fifth stop on our World Tea Tasting Tour, in which we explore the tea of China, India, Japan, Taiwan, England, South Africa, Kenya, and Argentina. Each class costs $5.00, which includes the tea tasting itself and a $5.00 off coupon that can be used that night for any tea, teaware, or tea-related books that we sell.

For a full schedule of the tea tour, see my introductory post from last month.

It’s Always Tea Time in India: Stop 3 on the World Tea Tasting Tour

India: the world’s second-largest producer of tea. Our third stop on the tasting tour explored the world of Indian estate teas, focusing on three large and well-known tea regions in the country: Darjeeling, Assam, and Nilgiri. Red Lodge Books & Tea imports directly from estates in Darjeeling and Assam. We compared single-source estate teas (think single-malt Scotch) from Glenburn, Khongea, and Tiger Hill estates to a blended 2nd-flush Darjeeling using tea from Marybong, Lingia, and Chamong estates.

India - Slide01We also explored the rich history of tea in India, from the British East India Company through the modern independent tea industry, and looked at the rating system used for Indian teas, which I wrote about last month here on “Tea With Gary”

The teas we tasted were:

  • 1st Flush Darjeeling FTGFOP-1 — Glenburn Estate
  • Organic 2nd Flush Darjeeling — Marybong, Lingia & Chamong Estates
  • Autumn Crescendo Darjeeling FTGFOP-1 — Glenburn Estate
  • Green Darjeeling — Glenburn Estate
  • Assam Leaf — Khongea Estate
  • Nilgiri FOP Clonal — Tiger Hill Estate

As I mentioned above, India is the 2nd largest producer of tea in the world, but 70% of their tea is consumed domestically, so they don’t play as big a role in the export market as countries like Kenya.


Darjeeling tea logoDarjeeling is the northernmost district in North Bengal. Of the 1,842,000 people who live there, over 52,000 make their living through tea. Darjeeling tea, often called the Champagne of Teas, is made from Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, the Chinese varietal of the tea plant, unlike tea from most of the rest of India, which is made from their native Camellia sinensis var. assamica.

Despite the generalization that black tea is always 100% oxidized (often incorrectly called “fermented”), most Darjeeling black teas are, like oolongs, not completely oxidized. While Darjeeling is known mostly for its black tea, there are oolongs and green teas produced there.

To be called “Darjeeling,” the tea must be produced at one of the 87 tea gardens (estates) in the Darjeeling district. Alas, the majority of tea sold with that name is not actually Darjeeling. Each year, the district produces about 10,000 tonnes of tea, and 40,000 tonnes show up for sale on the global market. In other words, 3/4 of the “Darjeeling” tea in the stores isn’t Darjeeling! That’s why we choose reputable suppliers at our store, buying most of it directly from the estate.

Darjeeling tea changes dramatically by the picking season, which is why we chose three different black Darjeelings for this tasting.

1st Flush Darjeeling FTGFOP-1

India - Slide15

The first tea we tasted was a first-flush Darjeeling from the Glenburn Estate, where we get most of our Darjeeling teas. Glenburn was started by a Scottish tea company in 1859, but has now been in the Prakash family for four generations. The estate is 1,875 acres (with 700 under tea), and produces 275,000 pounds of tea per year. They are located at 3,200 feet altitude and get 64-79 inches of rain per year. Glenburn employs 893 permanent workers, plus temporary workers during the picking season.

2nd Flush “Muscatel” Darjeeling

India - Slide16

Our next tea was an organic 2nd flush blend by Rishi, using Darjeeling teas from Marybong, Lingia & Chamong Estates. It was specifically blended to bring out the characteristic “muscatel” flavor and aroma associated with second-flush Darjeelings.

Autumn Crescendo Darjeeling FTGFOP-1

India - Slide17

For the third tea, we went back to Glenburn and selected an autumn-picked tea. Unlike the first two, we steeped this using full boiling water for three minutes, bringing out the undertones one might otherwise miss.

Green Darjeeling

India - Slide18

To wrap up the Darjeeling teas, we tasted a green Darjeeling from last fall. It’s an interesting hybrid of Chinese varietal and processing methodology blended with Indian terroir.


Assam tea logo

Assam is a state in northeast India with a population of over 31 million and an area of over 30,000 square miles. If Darjeeling is the champagne of tea, then Assam would be the single malt Scotch of tea. Hearty and malty, this lowland-grown tea comes from the assamica varietal of the tea plant.

Assam Leaf Tea


The Assam tea that we tasted is from the Khongea Estate, which has 1,200 acres of land with 1,100 of that under tea. Sitting at 300 feet altitude, the estate gets 150-200 inches of rain per year, making drainage very important. They employ 1,202 permanent workers (again, more during picking), and produce 2,640 pounds of tea per year.

Since Assam tea is frequently used in breakfast blends, we tasted this one with nothing added and then with milk, as most English tea drinkers (and many Indian tea drinkers) prefer.


Nilgiri tea logoNilgiri is the westernmost district of the state of Tamil Natu. It is smaller (950 square miles) and less populated (735,000 people) than Darjeeling, and quite high elevation, with tea growing between 6,500 and 8,500 feet altitude.

Tiger Hill Nilgiri FOP Clonal


The tea that we chose from Nilgiri comes from the Tiger Hill Estate in the Nilgiris (the “Blue Mountains” for which the district is named). They have 640 acres under cultivation, almost all of which is “clonal,” meaning that it was grafted onto other rootstock from a few mother plants. Tiger Hill has been producing tea since 1971.

This was the third stop on our World Tea Tasting Tour, in which we explore the tea of China, India, Japan, Taiwan, England, South Africa, Kenya, and Argentina. Each class costs $5.00, which includes the tea tasting itself and a $5.00 off coupon that can be used that night for any tea, teaware, or tea-related books that we sell.

For a full schedule of the tea tour, see my introductory post from last month.

Another new tea logo: Fifty Shades of Earl Grey

After a variety of local artists have had the fun of producing logos for my tea bar’s house blends, I thought it was about time to do another one myself. Since drawing isn’t my strong suit, I decided to pick a blend where I could work from a stock photo to start, and that would be Fifty Shades of Earl Grey.

50 Shades of Earl Grey logo

I developed the Fifty Shades blend a few months ago at the height of popularity of the Fifty Shades of Grey books, which we still sell plenty of in our bookstore. It was a funny little thing to start, and I didn’t think it would earn a permanent spot on our tea menu, but this odd blend started picking up popularity.

DISCLAIMER: There is no connection whatsoever between this tea and the Fifty Shades of Grey books. This is not a licensed product, and it has not been endorsed or authorized. It is strictly a parody.

The tea is based on a Kenyan black tea with a bit of Ceylon and Royal Purple mixed in. Then, of course, it gets the bergamot oil that characterizes an Earl Grey – a lot of bergamot. On top of that is a melange of cinnamon, orange, lemongrass, cornflower petals, and other goodies. Some of the ingredients were added for flavor, and some for looks. I wanted a black & blue tea, and I wanted something with a dominating flavor. What can I say? I just couldn’t resist the wordplay.

Coincidentally, it’s certainly one of the prettiest teas we have.

For the background picture, I wanted to capture the feel of the book cover artwork without using any of their imagery. I found a stock photo I liked, clipped out a portion of the pot with the steam, extended the dark background, and then adjusted the tone to get that bluish-grey color we ended up with. For the text, I chose a typeface with the look & feel of an old typewriter font, but proportionately spaced, and then I kerned it to suit.

The tagline at the bottom? Well, once again, I just couldn’t resist.

Keurig K-Cups and Tea

Keurig tea K-Cup

The Keurig pokes one hole in the top (visible here) and one in the bottom when it brews.

We checked into the Lake Hotel in Yellowstone last week for the latest stop on my book signing tour. As usual, I schlepped in all of my tea stuff so I could have a decent cup in the morning: electric kettle, teapot, a selection of loose-leaf tea.

Frequently, hotels have coffee makers in the room (unless you’re in Las Vegas), but I don’t like having my tea water taste like coffee, so I don’t use them.

In this room, however, was a Keurig® B130 In-Room Brewing System, the kind that uses the single-serving K-Cups. The sampling of K-Cups in the room included two regular coffees, two decaf coffees, one tea, and one herbal blend. I decided to give their Celestial Seasonings English breakfast tea a try. For some reason, Celestial Seasonings decided not to capitalize “English.” Because of my Scottish heritage, that makes me smile, but that’s irrelevant to the subject at hand.

Following their instructions, I took the sealed cup, which had its lid puffed out from the altitude, and inserted it in the machine. When I closed it (puncturing the top & bottom of the cup), the top of the coffee maker popped open. I added a cup of water, set the mug in its place, and looked for adjustments. Finding none, I just pressed “brew.”

The cup was ready surprisingly fast (one point for the machine), with much hissing and burbling. And it tasted like … your basic cup of breakfast tea in a restaurant. I don’t take milk or sugar in my tea, so I use shorter steeping times than the British generally do. Unfortunately, there are no adjustments on this machine, so I got a stronger, more astringent brew than I wanted. Minus one point.

I couldn’t taste any coffee at all in my tea — and I am pretty sensitive to that flavor — so that’s plus one point.

After my wife removed the tea K-Cup and made herself some coffee, I decided to see if I could get a second infusion out of the tea. I carefully lined up the puncture hole on the bottom of the cup and reinserted it. I followed the rest of the process as before, and got a pretty decent second cup. It was weaker than the first, of course, and similar to what you’d get if you reused a tea bag.

Used Keurig tea K-Cup open

The used K-Cup was quite full of leaves.

Opening the used cup gave some insight into the workings. As you’d expect with a mass-market breakfast tea, they used CTC (crush, tear, curl) processed leaves, broken into quite small pieces. This provides the large surface area needed for the accelerated brewing process Keurig uses.

I understand you can purchase special K-Cups to fill yourself. It would be interesting to play around with whole-leaf teas and tweak the amount of leaf. Unfortunately, since you can’t adjust water temperature, the Keurig would destroy delicate white or green teas, and since you can’t adjust steep times, it would produce bitter oversteeped pu-erh or Darjeeling.

Interestingly, I took a look at the list of tea K-Cups on Keurig’s website, and it does include green and white tea. I’m guessing that their target audience probably uses boiling water in green tea anyway, and doesn’t realize it’s not supposed to taste like that. Most of their 50 selections are black tea, of course, and many are herbal tisanes rather than tea. There are a couple of chai selections there, and I’m guessing those would work.

In conclusion, if you’re looking for a fast, easy way to replicate your basic restaurant-style black tea, the Keurig will work admirably. If you want more than that, it’s a lot cheaper to buy an electric kettle and an IngenuiTEA, and you’ll get much better tea, too. The Keurig Brewer is at heart a coffee maker, and using it for making tea is like driving nails with a wrench: you can do it, but it’s a sub-optimal solution.

A Nice Cup of Tea

George Orwell press photo

British writer George Orwell

On January 12, 1946, the Evening Standard published an essay by George Orwell entitled “A Nice Cup of Tea.” Like almost everyone else in my generation, I had to read his books Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm in school. They told us a lot about society and a lot about English culture, but not much about tea.

Orwell was British, and born in 1903. These two facts tell you a lot about how he viewed tea. I’ve written before about “Tea Nazis,” who believe that their way of preparing tea is the only way to prepare tea, and this essay is a marvelous example of that philosophy in action.

He opens the essay by saying that if you look up “tea” in a cookbook it’s likely to be unmentioned. That was very true in 1946. It is less true now, but even though there are a lot of wonderful books about tea, mainstream cookbooks generally find it unnecessary to describe how to prepare a pot (or a cup) of tea.

Orwell continues by pointing out that tea is a mainstay of civilization in England, yet the “best manner of making it is a subject of violent disputes.” Judging from conversations I’ve had with British friends, I’d have to agree with that. His next paragraph sets the tone for everything that follows:

“When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I find no fewer than eleven outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement, but at least four others are acutely controversial. Here are my own eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden:”

Since in my humble opinion just about everything related to preparing tea is subjective, I’d like to present my own take on Orwell’s eleven rules. Lets look at them one at a time.

“First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea. China tea has virtues which are not to be despised nowadays — it is economical, and one can drink it without milk — but there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it. Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.”

Here, I must vehemently disagree with Mr. Orwell. Perhaps the fact that he was born in India is showing through here. There is excellent tea from China (and Japan and Kenya and Taiwan…). If you want a beverage that will make you feel “wiser, braver or more optimistic,” I would recommend tequila. If you want tea that tastes good, you can find it all over the world.

Incidentally, when Orwell refers to “Ceylonese” tea, he means tea from the country that was called Ceylon when he wrote this essay, but became Sri Lanka when it achieved independence in 1948. We still typically call tea from Sri Lanka “Ceylon” tea.

“Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britannia-ware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse; though curiously enough a pewter teapot (a rarity nowadays) is not so bad.”

He has an excellent point about the small quantities. To me, this means preparing it by the cup rather than by the pot, and there is a lot of excellent teaware available for that purpose. Although china, earthenware, and ceramic teapots do add something to the tea, using plastic or glass pots allows you to watch the tea steep. It also adds (and detracts) nothing to the flavor.

“Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand. This is better done by placing it on the hob than by the usual method of swilling it out with hot water.”

I agree that pre-warming the pot helps to keep the water hot as the tea steeps.

“Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right. In a time of rationing, this is not an idea that can be realised on every day of the week, but I maintain that one strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones. All true tea-lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes — a fact which is recognized in the extra ration issued to old-age pensioners.”

My biggest problem with this “rule” is the statement that “all true tea-lovers not only like their tea strong.” In fact, many tea lovers like a shorter steeping time so that the flavor of the tea isn’t overwhelmed by the bitterness and tannins that come out later in the steep.

“Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot. No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea. In some countries teapots are fitted with little dangling baskets under the spout to catch the stray leaves, which are supposed to be harmful. Actually one can swallow tea-leaves in considerable quantities without ill effect, and if the tea is not loose in the pot it never infuses properly.”

Philosophically, he’s right. Allowing the water to circulate freely through the leaves does improve the infusion process. I do prefer not to consume the leaves (unless I’m drinking matcha), but a proper modern infuser will catch pretty much all of them.

“Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours. Some people add that one should only use water that has been freshly brought to the boil, but I have never noticed that it makes any difference.”

Clearly, Mr. Orwell was aware of only one kind of tea: black. While boiling water is the right way to go for black and pu-erh tea, you get much better results with green and white tea if you use cooler water. I won’t get into the oolong debate at the moment…

The little aside that he snuck in here about freshly-boiled water is perhaps the biggest point of argument I hear from tea lovers. Does your tea really taste different if the water is heated in a microwave instead of being boiled in a teapot? Does the tea taste different if you reboil water that has been boiled before? In a blind taste test, I can’t tell the difference. Perhaps you can.

“Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.”

I confess. I do this.

“Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup — that is, the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfast cup holds more, and with the other kind one’s tea is always half cold — before one has well started on it.”

Your cup is as personal as your clothing or your car. Most of the time, I use a 16-ounce ceramic mug made by a local potter. When I’m trying a new tea, I make the first cup in a glass mug so I can see it better. I typically use a smaller cup for matcha, a bigger one for chai lattes, and a bigger one than that for iced tea.

“Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.”

Unless I’m drinking chai, I do not add milk to my tea. I have made the occasional exception (I actually like milk in purple tea), but I generally prefer to taste the tea, not the milk.

“Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject.

The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.”

When I make chai, I don’t use either of Orwell’s methods. I find that the spices extract better with the lipids in the milk present than they do in water alone. In other words, I heat the milk and add it to the water while the tea is steeping. It changes the flavor considerably.

When I’m adding milk to any other tea, I typically put it in the cup first and then add tea to it.

“Lastly, tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tea-lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt.”

Good point, Mr. Orwell. Now please substitute the word “milk” for “sugar” in this paragraph. Then go back and read rule nine. I don’t sweeten my tea (chai being the exception again — I like some honey in it), but I see nothing wrong with doing so. Adding a bit of sugar is no different than adding a bit of milk.

Oh, and by the way, tea was traditionally prepared in salt water in ancient China. And one of my favorite chai blends does, indeed, contain pepper.

Orwell continues…

“Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.

Some people would answer that they don’t like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again.”

Again, Orwell is speaking only of black tea here. I do not expect bitterness in, for example, a Long Jing Dragonwell green tea. And I would argue that there are a lot of fine black teas that have minimal bitterness: Royal Golden Safari from Kenya, to pick a favorite of mine.

If I had to pick one issue to argue in this essay, it would be that George Orwell considers all tea to be the same (after eliminating the majority of the world’s production by limiting himself to India and Sri Lanka). Even within the world of black tea, there is immense diversity. I don’t use the same preparation methods or expect the same results for a malty Assam tea and a delicate first flush Darjeeling — much less a smoky Chinese lapsang souchong.

My recommendation? Experiment. Try new teas, and try them first without adding milk or sweetener. Use your supplier’s recommended water temperature and steeping time. Taste the tea. THEN decide whether you want to steep it for a shorter or longer time; whether it needs a bit of milk; whether you’d prefer to sweeten it.

The best tea is your favorite tea, prepared just the way you like it.

Meatballs in Lapsang Souchong Cream Sauce

I’ve written about cooking with lapsang souchong here before, but we decided to try something new for the Chamber of Commerce party at the bookstore/tea bar last month (the same one where we served the Hipster Hummus and the Orange Spice Carrot Cake Muffins).

If you’re not familiar with lapsang souchong tea, it’s a Chinese black tea that’s dried in bamboo baskets over a fire made with wet pine wood. The smoke from the fire dries and cures the tea, giving it a wonderful campfire smell. I think it’s a great wake-up tea in the morning, and it adds a great flavor to meats and fish. The lapsang souchong I used in this recipe is Cascade Smokehouse, from our tea bar.

The meatballs for this recipe aren’t really as important as the sauce, because the flavors in the sauce mask the meatballs themselves. Any old meatball recipe will do. Here’s how to do the rest:


  • 1/4 cup butter (you can use margarine if you’d like)
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 1 ounce lapsang souchong loose-leaf tea
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 cup sour cream


  1. Grind up the tea leaves, using a mortar & pestle or small food processor. They don’t need to be completely powdered, just broken into small pieces.
  2. Heat the chicken broth to boiling and add the tea leaves. Set aside for five minutes.
  3. In a small saucepan, melt the butter and slowly stir in the flour.
  4. Add the salt and broth (do not filter out the tea leaves).
  5. Stir over medium heat until it thickens.
  6. Remove from stove, and stir in the sour cream.
  7. Put the meatballs in a crock pot over low heat, and pour the sauce over it.

We left the meatballs and sauce in the crock pot for several hours on low heat before serving them. They went over very well!

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