TeaGuide: Reviews and Ramblings

August 17, 2010

Review: Great iced teas from Boston Tea Company

Retail and wholesale.

Tea photos courtesy of Boston Tea Company; additional stock photos

With summer drawing to a close, you might think it’s not the best time to talk about iced teas. Well, here in the Southlands it’s always iced tea season!

The “national beverage” of Southerners is sweet tea, a concoction of too much sugar and too little tea — but plenty of ice, which is probably the main component of its enduring popularity. As for myself, I simply do not drink the stuff. Yes, I’m the one you’ll always see in the restaurant or fast-food joint searching for the tiny jug of unsweet tea that they hide behind the containers of napkins and plastic cutlery. Too embarrassing, I guess, to put it out in the open!

And if you don’t drink iced tea in the coIder weather, let me point out that just about everyone drinks cold beverages all year ’round: soda pop, juice, energy drinks, white wine, beer, and even bottled iced teas. So why shouldn’t you drink home-steeped iced teas?

I make my own iced teas all year. But not sweet tea: I use tea and water and that’s it, the same way I make my hot teas.

I’ve been sampling a few teas from Boston Tea Company. Their headquarters are located in New Jersey near where we used to live, just outside New York City. In fact I used to buy some of their teas at a small shop in Queens where we’d go occasionally to pick up Romanian groceries.

Blueberry Kiwi White Tea

The first one I tried was their Blueberry-Kiwi White Tea. I’m not super-fond of fruity hot teas, but I do favour them when they’re chilled. This one really worked for me. Unlike many fruity teas that seem to be flavoured generically — they taste like fruit but not any specific fruit — this one was clearly blueberry. There is a background fruity flavour that doesn’t stand out as clearly which I’m presuming is the kiwi, but I’m fine with the intense blueberry-ness (I happen to like blueberries and huckleberries, their wild cousins, a lot). Best of all: I could actually taste the tea.

Too many flavoured teas are all about the flavouring. Probably because too many tea companies, maybe to cater to their clientele, maybe to make a quick buck, use low-grade teas as merely a “carrier” for their flavourings. But Boston Tea Company seems to use a higher grade of tea in their blends. Highly-flavoured tea does not appeal  to me at all. I mean, what’s the point of going to the trouble of making iced tea that doesn’t taste like tea? Why not save yourself the trouble and just make Kool-Aid? On the other hand, a good tea with the right amount of complementary flavourings can be quite nice, especially iced. And Boston seems to do it right.

Organic Peony White Tea

Although I usually fix my iced teas using a cold-steep method (place tea and water into jug, refrigerate for at least two hours or overnight), for the next three I wanted to sample them hot first. So I made a big teapotful of each, drank a cup or two from the pot, and chilled the rest.

The Organic Peony White Tea is exceptional both hot and cold. Like all the best white teas it is both delicate and flavourful. It also has a wonderful floral aroma — perhaps peony, but I couldn’t quite pinpoint it. Hot it’s an elegant cup that I find myself reaching for frequently in the morning; chilled it’s light but assertive, losing aroma but no flavour in the cooling process. The Coconut Joy was, I thought, quite good iced, actually better iced than hot — chilling seemed to bring out more of the flavour of the tea itself so it was matched evenly to the rich coconut. I should point out that I am unreasonably picky about coconut teas — my standard is still the sublime coconut tea from the late lamented Akbar’s Finest Teas, and I have no yet found its equal, although I do like Boston’s version. (Oh Dave and Carolen, where have you gone?)

Coconut Joy Black Tea

Now the Jasmine Green tea was a different story. I enjoyed this one iced but much preferred it hot. Many years ago, someone I respect as a true tea expert told me that the best jasmine teas do not contain flowers when they are sold to the consumer. Any flower particles are removed after scenting the tea; leaving in the flowers, I was told, is purely a visual gimmick. I’m sorry but I can’t quite agree with this viewpoint. If you have ever eaten flowers — a great delicacy in some restaurants — you know that they have a warm, spicy flavour to them. Boston’s version does have flowers in it, and you know what? I really like it! I like the subtle spiciness imparted by the flowers and the way it plays off the floral sweetness of the jasmine. I’m not likely to give up my flower-less jasmine teas, but to my taste this jasmine simply has more character than a lot of others. And again, the taste of the tea itself comes through.

Jasmine Green Tea

Boston sent me samples of a couple of types of teabag from Bentley’s, which I take it are not Boston’s proprietary teas and they resell them. I could be mistaken so don’t take my word for it. One was a Raspberry Green tea, and the other a Blackberry Black tea. I do like to use teabags for iced tea simply for convenience, so I fixed them both as cold-steeped iced teas. Both were very fresh-smelling and fresh-tasting, but the flavours overpowered the tea itself. Not something I’d try again, but if this is your cup of tea they’d be good for travel as each is individually foil-wrapped. Demerits, however, to the black tea for not opening easily (I had to cut the foil packages open — probably a one-off manufacturing issue). And to the teabags in general for the oddity of the way the string is wound up in the teabag — to steep it you pull the tag to release the string. A clever idea in theory, but I found that doing this even gently left a hole in the teabag paper that was large enough for small tea particles to pass through into the steeping jug.

As an added bonus, all of Boston’s teas are kosher-certified, both loose-leaf and teabags. Only a very few companies offer a full line of good kosher teas, so it’s very pleasant to discover a new one.

Boston Tea Company’s teas can be purchased at retail through their website and are also available at a number of retailers. Contact them for locations. They are currently in the process of setting up online wholesale ordering.

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August 2, 2010

Review: Tea-Cha for almost-instant, super-anti-oxidant tea

Retail and wholesale.

Tea-Cha photo courtesy of Tea-Cha Teaware; additional stock photos

It’s a fact of life: I’m not always right. For example, I have to admit that when I first heard about Tea-Cha, I didn’t think much of it. No, that’s not true: the idea seemed kind of nutty, almost laughable. I mean, here was this very earnest, professor-ish Aussie going on about the science of infusing ground-up tea in a simple little gadget for just a few seconds to make a perfect cup of tea. “HA!” says I, “That’s crazy talk!” I mean, we all know that the only way to make a good cup of tea is to steep loose-leaf teas for anywhere from two or three minutes to seven or more minutes. Small particles of tea? That nasty stuff is for cheap teabags, not for making real tea.

Then I tried Tea-Cha. And I’m not laughing any more.

In fact, I’ve been using it. Not for every cup or every tea, but this nifty little device definitely has its place in any tea drinker’s repertoire. It’s especially handy when temperatures are hovering in the upper 90s and you’ve got to have iced tea right now.

The idea behind Tea-Cha is simple: Take tea leaves, grind them up, then infuse them via drip process for about thirty seconds in the Tea-Cha’s Pet (isn’t that a great name?) funnel and filtering device. This results in a very strong concentrate, which is poured into a teapot, cup, or glass, to which you add hot or cold water to fill. Voila! Near-instant hot or iced tea!

Actually, when I thought about it, the concept was not really that alien. If you’ve ever had to prepare tea for a crowd you probably made a concentrate, then added hot or cold water to reconstitute just before serving. Tea-Cha just takes this concept and refines it. And no leaf-per-cup calculations are required if you follow the simple instructions.

All you have to do is rest the Tea-Cha’s Pet — a conical device with a handle — on top of the teapot, cup, glass, or (if you won’t be serving it immediately) other container. Then you place a teaspoonful of ground tea leaves for each cup/glassful you want into the device, pour hot water over it, then wait about twenty or thirty seconds for all the water to pass through. Add more or less hot or cold water to the resulting concentrate, according to your taste. If you like, stir in sugar, lemon juice, milk, or whatever else you usually add to your tea. And it’s ready to drink in about as much time as it took to read this paragraph.

The key to Tea-Cha is the use of good-quality tea, not the dust and fanning droppings left over from the tea process. If you’re asking the same questions I had — “Why would I want to destroy good tea by grinding it up? Won’t that ruin the flavour?” — the Tea-Cha folks have an answer: When you grind up a good-quality chocolate, whether for drinking, decorating, baking, whatever, doesn’t it still retain its excellent qualities of flavour and aroma? Well, it’s the same with tea. If it’s a good-quality tea, it will still be good tea whether the leaves are big or small. As an added bonus, the Tea-Cha method produces tea super-rich in those terrific anti-oxidants!

What teas can you use with Tea-Cha? The company carries about a dozen different teas. I’ve sampled a few and they’re fine — some are even quite good. But if you want to use some other tea, you can grind the leaves yourself. I found that grinding the leaves in a coffee/spice mill for about ten or twenty seconds (depending on how big the leaves are to start with) produces the right size and texture. Worked nicely yesterday, for example, with a fragrant jasmine pouchong. And last week with a rich, nectar-like Assam. These are both teas that I’ve prepared in the orthodox style many times, so I’m very familiar with them. And there was no loss of flavour or aroma when they were prepared with the Tea-Cha.

You can re-infuse most teas thanks to the rapid infusion process. It even works with teas that don’t normally lend themselves to re-infusion.

While Tea-Cha is a convenient gadget to add to your tea ware collection, I think its real value might be in a tea house. Even accounting for the twenty or so seconds required to grind the tea, it takes barely a minute to turn out fresh hot or iced tea — or added in concentrate form to lattes or other tea beverages. Instead of having only one or two pre-made iced teas each day, a tea house could offer iced tea made with virtually any tea on their shelf without the long wait of steeping and then chilling. Hot teas prepared this way could be served quickly, and without the leaves stewing in the teapot.

The Tea-Cha website has much more information including a video showing how the device works. And yes, all the science behind the concept. Definitely worth a few moments of your time to take a look.

As a bonus, the Tea-Cha’s Pet is available in about a dozen colours. So in addition to its being efficient, you’ll look really cool using it!

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