Wednesday 9 February 2011

Tea: My latest obsession

I can’t drink beer all the time. I have to go to work and have the kind of job where opening a beer at my desk would be frowned upon. I also like to have a couple of booze-free days a week. And then there are the early mornings, which see me needing a livener of caffeine, not a sharpener of booze. All of this, plus my desire to learn more about different drinks, has seen tea become my latest obsession.

Builders’ tea was ruined for me a few years ago by my housemate at university who said it tasted like beansprouts. Ever since that moment, every tea has tasted exactly like that, some mildly and others so strong that I’m almost distracted to start chewing it.

My first sidestep away from Sainsbury’s own label was seeing the black boxes of Twinings with flavour descriptions on their front. I got the Breakfast, the malty Assam and the intensely smoky Lapsang Souchong, just to see what they were like. Then I found Teapigs in Waitrose and couldn’t resist the brown box with the cool brand, even if I could’ve bought about 300 bags for the same price. The addition of Teapigs to my shopping basket was the moment of change which saw me going online and buying a box of almost all of their teas, which come in cute and handy two-bag (or temples, as they’re called) sample boxes as well as in larger boxes or as loose teas.

I don’t know much about tea (this helps) but I’m fascinated to see it described in the same ways as wine or beer (and now coffee) with tasting notes and descriptions. And that was the trigger that made me realise that tea wasn’t just Tetley’s.

Chamomile tea is a relaxer, soothing anxiety, aiding sleep. This caffeine-free tea is made with whole flowers, like a cute sack of golden buds (which swell when brewing as the picture shows). It’s a pale gold, clean, floral and delicate, a little minty and uplifting, a little pineapple sweetness. I really liked it.

Peppermint tea is good for the gut, another caffeine-free brew, it smells amazing and zingy-fresh, vibrant and minty which carries through to the tongue and leaves a tingle of little kisses behind. It’s refreshing and not overpowering, with no harsh bitterness. If you’ve never had peppermint tea then you need to try it!

Tung ting oolong is a blue tea, somewhere between green and black. It’s very delicate, floral like a field of daisies, rapeseed in the summer, light and interesting.

Chocolate flake tea is malty Assam plus cocoa beans, chocolate flakes and a bit of fun. It smells like cocoa with a slug of Baileys in it (the bag before brewing smells like a fancy box of chocs) but the taste is much more subtle than expected, still lots of chocolate flavour in there and the background of tea. It’s a bit cheeky.

Yerba Mate is an interesting one. It’s called an energy brew, a Red Bull for Amazonian tribes, a should-be favourite with celebs due to the detoxing and weightloss credentials it holds. It’s a musky green with a pungent earthy aroma, a little smoky, the way an old jumper smelt when pubs let you smoke, it’s got a bitterness as well, but not a harshness, and a hint of cannabis. It’s smooth, there’s an underlying sweetness and I liked it a lot; it’s like green tea but better.

Rooibos is a red tea, another that’s caffeine-free, and it smells the best of the whole lot, like jam roly poly and stewed apple mixed with something lightly, sweetly floral. There’s a jammy, nutty flavour to it but it’s a background depth, not like drinking syrup. Fig rolls, sweet tobacco, blackcurrant and even a little earthy smoke all come through – yum.

Popcorn tea is another fun one which mixes green tea with toasted rice (plus a tiny nugget of popcorn), leaving a light and nutty brew which does taste like popcorn and adds a sweetness. Green tea for the cinema fan.

Chilli Chai mixes Assam tea, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom pods, chilli and vanilla. The temple is a picture, filled with colour and fragrant chunks. Spice plumes out the cup but the taste is delicate and not overpowering – spicy, fruity, fragrant, a tingle on the tongue.

Silver tips white tea is plucked within two hours of sprouting, and only sprouts for two weeks of the year, before it’s left to dry naturally. It’s a lilac-brown colour, doughy, floral, raisiny and grassy. Smooth, subtle and refreshing, but really interesting to taste.

Darjeeling Earl Grey is floral and lemony, the bergamot giving off something different to any Earl Grey I’ve had before, tasting fresher and less like chewing a cup of stewed flowers.

Mao feng green tea has a fruity-floral aroma with a background savouriness to it, not bitter or brow-curlingly bad, as some green teas are, this is light and lovely.

The Breakfast tea is the staple. I got a big box of it. It’s like all the other Breakfast teas, just better.

Apart from the Earl Grey, the green tea and the Breakfast, I got two bags of each to try. When I order again I will be buying a big box each of the Yerba Mate, Chamomile and Rooibos, plus more Breakfast (I might even make the step up to loose tea!), and maybe some irresistible peppermint. What I like about all of the ones I tried are the subtle flavours and the freshness of them, not tasting like old beansprouts or cardboard, and there's something for all times of the day, whether a breakfast wake up or an evening relaxer. It’s taken tea from an everyday work fuel to an interesting drink of great variety. Teapigs also look fantastic – it’s a great brand and a great product with interesting words written on the boxes. It’s not cheap but then the beer I buy isn’t cheap either, choosing to pay for quality over quantity.

Of course, it also got me thinking about beers made with tea... an Earl Grey IPA, with the floral flavour hitting a different note to the hops; a green tea pale ale with a different depth of flavour, a different type of bitterness; a lapsang souchong stout, smoky and intense in a way smoked malt can’t produce; peppermint tea porter making the best mint choc chip beer ever; a Rooibos red ale, adding nutty, jammy flavours to it... Or, what about a tea temple with Assam tea, a few pieces of malted barley and a couple of small hop leaves to give you a beer in a tea cup? I’d love to try that.

Tea: my day time drink just got more interesting. Anyone else had any different teas that are worth trying or different places which sell interesting varieties?


  1. Fortnum's has a pretty impressive range of teas, not that I shop there on a regular basis I hasten to add. Sadly I don't drink enough tea to make it worth my while to get further into it as they tend to go stale whilst I hunt down the next shot of Monmouth coffee

  2. The German's seem to be big into their fruit and herbal teas (we always seem to have too many types, I mean, who really likes fennel tea?), and it's here I was introduced to Roiboos (or Rotbusch) tea years ago. Second to my Barry's or Lyon's tea bags, my only real everyday nod back to Ireland, roiboos would be me next regular drink (I went back on the coffee for a while, but had to cut back again). By coincidence, last week I was wondering what a few roiboos teabags might add to a beer.

    Never liked earl grey since I first tried it 19 years ago on a archaeological excavation (always seemed like a kind of posh excavation to me). :D

  3. I bloody love this post. I just ordered a stack load of flowering teas from Shenzen and I'm enormously aroused by the idea of plopping a couple in a jar while the missus ain't looking, then asking her to inspect my latest 'sample'.

    In all seriousness, there's a fundamental dearth of good quality tea in this country, and all the so-called 'merchants' proper rip you off.

    Become an eBay Powerseller and I reckon you could make a 'mint', pff ha ummhaha!

  4. Tea Pigs range available @ Deli a GoGo, 3 Penlline Road, Whitchurch,

  5. Builders tea! Or two bags steeped in hot water for 10-15 mins first thing in the morning. Also some weird ayurvedic tea was pretty good whilst having a break from espresso frenzy.

  6. Adrian, was that ayurvedic tea made on milk? We've had some odd, spicy teas here (Yogi Tea) brewed on milk. Wasn't bad, actually.

    My uncle (who was a race-car driver and mechanic, not a builder) used to make really stewed tea (that everyone else in his household drank) and then throw another teabag into his cup, just to be sure. I think it resulted in several bent spoons while stirring.

  7. Well youve got me onto my 2nd favourite topic after beer.

    first off i have to protest that half your examples arnt actually TEA. Tea is the leaf and buds of the Camellia Sinensis plant processed and cured in various ways, resulting in the different type of tea.

    So while i might enjoy a pepermint or roiboos infussions there not actually tea.
    These are no more tea, than cider is a type of beer.

    but the 2nd point i want to make is what winds me up the most is how often Tea Pigs are spoken about as if they are something new and wonderful.

    I find this the same as someone saying, ive found this new great Cider. its callled Magners.

    Ok tea pigs are better quality than tetley,
    so maybe it more like some one telling you theyve found a great new beer called Sierra Nevada pale ale.

    Great tea has been around for ages. Ive been buying it since at least 1998. Usually its found in goood tea and coffee merchants. All Tea pigs have done is market it better.

    Saying that welcome to the world of great beer.

  8. err great world of Tea.

    beer on the brain me. Doh

  9. Jasmine pearls!

    Don't go for the showy flowering stuff, it's not as good, get jasmine pearls...

  10. I started drinking loose tea leaves recently. I found Ringtons was pretty good, and they have a good method of brewing tea for one person. It's pretty useless for a pot for more than one person, but other than that I use it all the time.
    It's effectively like a massive tea bag, that lets the tea brew properly, and then it filters it out through the bottom.

  11. hmm... that's a lot a tea. Lindemans make a great tasting tea beer, you should check it out. You could have stuck with your brewdog-esk tea in a punk glass, and used suitable beer glasswear for each veritable of tea.

  12. Stuart Howe actually did a Lapsang Souchong beer as part of his 52 brews project:

    Apparently it didn't turn out great - which is a shame as I've been thinking about doing a similar thing myself. Currently I'm toying with the idea of pairing it with some regular rauschmalt to take the edge off the tarriness, while keeping some of the smoke, and hopping with Pacific Gem (Apparently a lot of the lapsang aroma compounds are related to pine resin aromas, so I figured a fairly resinous hop might work quite well).

    Earl Grey beer sounds amazing - I've had Earl Grey infused Gin before and it was awesome.

  13. Ive always been a sucker for good tea but I am definately going through a coffee phase at the moment.

    Coffee shop down the road from me has 68 beans and rotate a coffee of the day every day of the week.

    If I dont watch out I will become a foodie next!

  14. Barry — no milk at all, it was hanging around in the kitchen, think my wife had been sent it for some article or other
    probably with stewed tea is that no one else likes it and I get a few dirty looks and choice words when I stew everyone else’s

    Another one: early grey with lemon

    but Lapsang tastes like my climbing boots

  15. You are weird Mark, very weird. However, I'm a big fan of Clipper's Green Tea with Lemon. Tried the flowery stuff, pfah!

    Roiboos is passable also. And white tea. Nice and simple.

    Funnily enough, with a bacon sarnie or a chocolate brownie, I'm right back on the builders tea after about 3 years on the milk-in-tea wagon.

  16. Nice one. Big fan of PG tips and builders tea in general, but equally a fan of something a bit more "special" too.

    I'm with Matt G, Jasmine pearls are the way to go. Such a delicate but full and delicious flavour if you get the brew right. Not something to replace bog standard tea but definetly something to add to it.

    I think that with tea, glassware/method of serve is even more critical than with beer. Something delicate like Jasmine would be ruined if drunk from a clunky old mug.

  17. "Funnily enough, with a bacon sarnie or a chocolate brownie, I'm right back on the builders tea after about 3 years on the milk-in-tea wagon."

    You're the weird one! bacon sandwich or chocolate brownie? They couldnt be more different!

  18. Not at the same time Neil! Although I imagine there are people who would like a bacon flavoured brownie!

  19. Incidentally, Teapigs are in fact owned by Tetley, so this is all Tetley's builders tea...

  20. Teapigs is owned by tetley, but it is obviously a better quality of tea, so I wouldn't worry too much about that... it's in the taste... as you say in your blog. It is much better quality than a box of tetleys *tea*. Just look at what is IN the teabag itself!... black dust = Not good!

    If you like different teas.. try teaboxonline, based in Sheffield, they have a FAB range of tea that I serve at my own tea party events, including a rhubarb and custard (A firm fave with my guests!) and even Whiskey and ginger!... Very different range and superb customer service as well as quality. Miss Sue Flay (Secluded Tea Party : )

  21. Why is tea pigs pretending to be an indepedent, small is beautiful company when they know that a large corporation like Tata is behind them. Companies like Tea pigs are in fact more dangerous than large multinationals because customers like us go them thinking they are indpendently run small outfit hence deserves our support.