Fantastic Teas 2012: Great Gift Guide

I love sharing recommendations for great products and great gifts. Here’s last year’s epic gift guide. And a selection of food books I suggested the year before. And the main gift guide from 2010 too. And back in 2009 I shared some great tea products from suppliers including Jing, Lahloo, Rare Tea Company and Teanamu.

It’s certainly well worth reviewing those posts as they’re full of fabulous shopping ideas, most of which are still available.

This year, I’ve encountered more excellent tea from a range of sellers, and decided it was high time to share the very best of those on Kavey Eats – Adagio Teas, East India Company, In Nature, Momo Cha, Steenbergs, Tregothnan and Waterloo Tea.

 

Adagio Teas

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Adagio Teas is an American family business that grew out of a love for Chinese tea. Sophie Kreymerman switched from being a part time manicurist to running her own tea retail business, with her two sons Michael and Ilya. Launched in 1999, the business opened a European website (based in the UK) back in 2008.

I tried a selection of their teas, and found the range and quality very good.

Yunnan Gold is a black tea from Yunnan province in China. The loose leaves have a wonderful caramel aroma which comes through more gently in the flavour once brewed. The liquor is a beautiful bronze colour. The tea has just the merest hint of sweetness to it. This is a mild and light black tea with no bitterness even when brewed strong. (£9 / 43 grams)

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Ti Kuan Yin is one of my favourites, and this example is lovely. The clear liquor has a very subtly floral aroma, but also the typical fresh grassy smell of an oolong. On tasting, it’s similarly subtle and pleasantly refreshing. (£14 / 85 grams)

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The Earl Grey Lavender is a beautifully balanced black tea. The slightly medicinal floral taste of lavender blends beautifully with the citrus notes of the bergamot to create a wholly new flavour. This is rich, sweet and smooth. (£5 / 85 grams)

 

East India Company

The first time I tried a small selection of products from The East India Company, I was disappointed, especially with the tea. The box of The Campbell Darjeeling Loose Leaf I was sent to review was so bland, dusty and so lacking in flavour that I threw it away. (Follow this link to learn about the history of The EIC and read my first review).

However, earlier this year, I went in to the store itself – on Conduit Street, just off Regent Street – and tried a wider range of teas, under the guidance of the East India Tea Company tea master, Lalith Lenadora. Mr Lenadora began his tea career 3 decades ago, as a tea planter in Sri Lanka, and has enormous experience working for some of the great tea estates of his home country. Nowadays, he personally selects and supervises the teas sold by The EIC.

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All the teas I tried were very good (though I didn’t try that Campbell Darjeeling again) and some were truly excellent. I’d recommend going into the store in person, so you can smell the sample leaves for each one and taste the samples they brew each day.

Mi Lan Dan Cong Oolong is also known as Phoenix Honey Orchid and is a black oolong from China. Typically, tasters describe floral and honey notes, but for me the key characteristic that comes through on smell and taste is malty milkiness and then, just a hint of honey. The tea is a pale cream colour when brewed, and needs a fairly long brewing time for the flavours to fully develop. It’s great hot but delicious enjoyed cold. This would be a good choice for someone who usually likes milk in their tea but is looking for a tea to enjoy without it. (£10 / 50 grams – this is the least expensive of EIC’s oolongs, with others priced at £35 / 100 grams and £50 / 100 grams)

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Italian Orange Blossom is listed on EIC’s website as an Iced Tea; I’m not sure why and I brewed it with hot water. Dry, the leaves have a strong orange blossom aroma, which is quite intoxicating. Once brewed, they produce a beautifully orange-coloured tea liquor however the orange blossom flavour is very subtle, giving just a tease of floweriness to a classic black tea. This would suit anyone who loves bright and fragrant blacks and wants to change it up a little, without going down the route of full-on flavoured teas. (£7 / 100 grams).

 

In Nature Teas

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In Nature offer organic teas sourced from China. They sell only loose leaf tea which is grown in high mountain tea estates.

I tried their three oolongs, natural, alpine and floral.

The Natural oolong has a smoky, caramel and condensed milk aroma. On the palate, a creamy, malty milk flavour and gentle smokiness comes through. (£5.45 / 50 grams)

The Alpine oolong brews a greener liquor, and the aroma carries more of a fresh green tea along with that condensed milk smell again. Milk comes through in the taste, along with the grassiness of green tea. (£5.45 / 50 grams)

The Floral oolong is quite unusual in that it brews to a pale amber-pink colour. The aroma is heady with apricots, with a hint of smoke. On tasting, it reminds me of a black tea, with citrus and dried apricots. Brew stronger for a richer colour and taste. (£6.55/ 50 grams)

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Momo Cha Fine Teas

In recent years, I’d grown more and more disillusioned with the Good Food Show, disappointed with the prevalence of big brands, low quality products and even exhibitors that had no connection to food whatsoever. This year, assured that the show’s focus was on high quality and relevant products, with many more smaller producers in the mix, I was persuaded to give the show another try. Sceptical, I went along, only to be genuinely blown away, not just by one or two of the new producers I encountered but by many of them! It was a fantastic day meeting many talented producers offering many fantastic products.

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One of my biggest pleasures of the day was meeting Niels & Mojca of Momo Cha and trying some of their teas. The pair had always dreamed of running a tea house and sharing good quality tea with their customers. During a holiday to Japan, they researched tea production there, and hooked up with a guy who’d been trading tea for decades. He helped plan a specialist trip around Japan, to meet the best producers and farmers. After that, they started selling Japanese teas at Brick Lane, to gauge customer interest; that was two years ago. They also travelled to Taiwan and Korea to find more producers and more top teas. And just one year ago, they developed their packaging and opened the webshop.

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Several of their teas won one, two or even three star Gold Awards in this year’s Great Taste Awards, great recognition for such a young and small company. These are the most expensive teas in my round up, but if you have the budget, I’d strongly urge you to give them a chance.

Happy Sencha is an early harvested green tea from Japan’s Uji region. The aroma is typical cut grass and meaty umami, and when the tea is brewed hot, this comes through clearly in the taste. This is one of the best green teas I’ve tasted, and the flavour is wonderfully intense. It can also be brewed cold for a sweeter, less bitter drink. I still got lots of flavour not just from the first and second hot brew, but from the third and fourth as well. (£22.50 / 50 grams)

I’ve never had anything like the Cherry Tea, which consists of hand-picked and rolled leaves from Japanese cherry trees. It has an amazing floral smell, but not like your typical fruit teas, which smell or taste of the fruits themselves – it’s a woodier sweetness, somewhat musky and reminiscent of tobacco. On tasting, there’s a suggestion of sweetness and a gentle black tea flavour. A very unusual tea. (£11.50  / 30 grams)

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The High Mountain Oolong is, without a doubt, the best oolong I’ve ever tasted. The aromas are just as you’d expect from a high quality oolong – a fresh grassiness, a sweet malted milkiness, the merest hint of smoke and flowers. The taste is incredible – a more intense or vibrant version of the oolongs I regularly enjoy. All the promises of the aroma come through on the palate. Best of all, you can brew the same leaves three or four times during the day, so a little goes a long way. (£13 / 50 grams)

Amacha is a tea made from the Japanese Hortensia plant, which we more commonly call the Hydrangea. The leaves are picked, steamed, dried and hand rolled, just like traditional tea. But unlike regular tea, they are sweet – and not just a little sweet but super sweet! The leaves contain phyllodulcin which is hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, hence the name ama-cha, which simply means ‘sweet tea’. That said, as it’s not a true tea and has no caffeine, it would be better thought of as a tisane. In Japan this tea is traditionally served on April 8th, to celebrate Buddha’s birthday. You can enjoy this tea on its own, though the sweetness is very intense, or alternatively you can brew then water down, or mix with regular teas to make your own blend.

 

Steenbergs

I had previously associated Steenbergs, a small family-run business founded in 2003, with high quality herbs and spices but recently learned that they offer tea too. They focus on organic and Fair Trade, with a genuine commitment to ethical sourcing.

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They offer a wonderfully wide range of teas, and all their teas come in tea caddies and tins rather than packets.

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Baihao Oolong, also known as Beauty Oolong, is an unusual oolong from Xinhui in Northern Taiwan, a wet and humid region. Dry, the leaves have a strong spicy aroma which reminds me of garam masala. The tea produces a red liquor, typical of a heavily oxidised oolong. Once brewed, the smell of spice resolves into black pepper and nutmeg, and this definitely carries through to the taste. I’ve never encountered this in a tea before! I would recommend it to those who like Indian masala chai. (£8.95 /125 grams)

Produced by the Ambootia Tea Estate is in Darjeeling, in the foothills of the Himalayas, the Green Darjeeling is not at all like traditional Chinese and Japanese green teas. Dry, the smell reminds me of dried fruits and forests, with none of the grassiness of East Asian green teas. The taste is very mild, like a very light black Darjeeling. (£5.95 /125 grams)

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The Organic White tea is an organic Pai Mu Tan, named for the petals of the white peony, and comes from the Fujian province of China. The leaves are dried in the sun and packed immediately, with no oxidisation or rolling. It releases less caffeine on brewing than most teas. Dry, it smells musty, but in a pleasant way, like a freshly rain-drenched forest and there’s also a strange salty sweet aspect to the smell. Brewed, it has a very fresh and leafy taste. (£5.50 /125 grams)

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Flowering teas offer a little spectacle in the cup, as well as drink of tea. Sold as tightly wrapped balls, they slowly unfurl once hot water is poured gently over them. Steenbergs Jasmine Silver Balls are hand crafted in China’s Chongquing Province; long white-mottled leaves are selected, tied together, shaped by cutting and then formed into a ball before being steamed and dried with fresh jasmine flowers. For me, the flavour was 100% wonderfully intense jasmine – I couldn’t detect the tea at all. My only disappointment was that the ball started to disintegrate almost immediately, even though I’d poured the water very gently down the sides of the glass. It didn’t unfurl into the beautiful flower shape more common of these balls. (£7.95 / 70 grams)

 

Tregothnan

Tregothnan grow tea in England. Yes, it really does grow here! Two hundred years ago, this estate was the first place in England to grow ornamental Camellia. The team made their first, experimental teas back in 2000 with those original camellia plants. Now, they grow Camellia sinensis tea in a number of locations on their Cornish estate, and at additional farms in Cornwall. #

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Manuka is usually associated with New Zealand but Tregothnan grow it here too, and use the leaves to make their herbal tisane, called Manuka Infusion . Caffeine free and rich in antioxidants, this is not a strictly a tea, but adds welcome variety to the range. (Loose leaf caddy £5 / 25 grams or £3.50 / 10 sachets)

I also tried Classic Tea, a breakfast blend black tea, and Earl Grey, both of which are good quality every day teas.

 

Waterloo Tea

How I came across Waterloo Tea is a lovely story to share. Last year, my sister and her friends held a memorial charity fundraiser in the name of a very dear friend who was tragically killed in a car accident 10 years previously. Asked to help secure auction prizes for the event, I turned to twitter and my request was generously shared by others. That’s how it came to the attention of Kasim Ali, director of Waterloo Tea in Cardiff, Wales. Having never interacted with me online, let alone met in person, Kas generously donated some of her teas for the auction, knowing that there wouldn’t be any media coverage. She did it just to be nice. Having read Waterloo Tea’s website, I knew these teas were high quality, and of course, I wanted to bid on some of the auction items myself, and contribute to the fundraising total, so I bid on these teas … and won them! The memorial event raised £3579.57 for The Chicken Shed Theatre.

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Kas chose four Indian black teas, having secured Grand Reserve lots, which are the best available.

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I’ve already enjoyed 2 of the packets in the selection but opened the Darjeeling Second Flush Makaibari Estate, Grand Reserve to include in this review. Dry, the leaves have an incredibly intense aroma of dried figs and a hint of tobacco or wood. It’s a really heady, intoxicating smell. What we call black tea here is known as hong cha or red tea in China, where it originated. When you see the beautiful red-orange colour of this freshly brewed tea, it’s obvious why. Once brewed, the fruit takes a back seat and the tea smells much more like a regular black tea. On the palate too, it’s a light, elegant black tea. (£8.50 / 100 grams)

The next tea I want to try from Waterloo Tea is the incredible sounding Yuzu Oolong, made by infusing Taiwanese high mountain alishan oolong with citrus peel. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

 

Kavey Eats received review samples from some the suppliers above, along with others which I’ve chosen not to include, as they did not impress.

Please leave a comment - I love hearing from you!
13 Comments to "Fantastic Teas 2012: Great Gift Guide"

  1. Katherine

    So extensive – thanks Kavey! There are so many great tea companies in the UK now and it’s really nice to read about a group of them all at once. Off to look at Waterloo Tea now…

    Reply
  2. webcowgirl

    What a fun writeup! I have to say, if Waterloo picked Makaibari then they’re definitely on the right track. I have actually had a hard time finding good black teas, especially estate Darjeelings, in the UK and have wound up buying most of my stuff from Mariages Freres (which now has a stand in Selfridges) and at Tee Gshwender (when I go to Germany to visit my uncle). This review makes me think I ought to take a peek at Waterloo Tea (and maybe a few of the others).

    Reply
    Kavey

    Kasim was very proud of her black Indian teas selection, which is why she chose those teas to send as the auction prize. Definitely worth getting in touch and talking to her about her recommendations from this year’s offerings.

    If you like oolongs, there are plenty of great choices above, but the one I liked the very best was the Momo Cha one.

    Reply
  3. Susan

    What an amazing and detailed review, must have taken you ages, true dedication to giving an honest account of the teas you sampled. For someone that only drinks tea like myself I am always on the look out for new teas to try so this is great for me. Brands here I have never heard of until I read this. Thank you.

    Reply
    Kavey

    Thanks Susan, it did take me a lot of hours to do all the sampling, photos, photo processing and writing so nice to be appreciated. Hope you can pick up some great teas from these suppliers.

    Reply
  4. Choclette

    Good review Kavey. As a drinker of pretty much any tea that isn’t black tea, I’m loving the proliferation of really good and interesting teas that can be found nowadays. If I go into a cafe and there is a tea menu, I know it’s going to be a good establishment.

    Tregothnan, I know of course, but do find their tea rather pricey for a not particularly special sort of tea. But it is also quite fun that we are growing tea in Cornwall, so I sort of let them off!

    Reply
    Kavey

    Yes, I agree that Tregothnan are a little pricy for the level, however I imagine that farm / garden labour is a lot more expensive here than in the traditional tea growing regions of the world, so I think it’s reasonable. I thought the Manuka tisane the best of the three of their samples I tried.

    Reply
  5. Pebble Soup

    This is amazing, learnt so much, these Jasmine balls sound fantastic. Definitely want to try some of these. thanks for such a detailed post. Refreshing.

    Reply

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