Shop Review: Mootz Run Tea Shop and Petali Teas

The Columbus tea scene is pretty limited (well, the commercial tea scene anyway) considering that we claim to be the cultural and foodie capitol of the Midwest. There are only one or two shops I am willing to stop by in Columbus on a regular basis, but I feel as though I am pretty well connected with the private Columbus tea scene. Imagine my surprise when I learned that almost no one has heard of Petali Teas or Mootz Run Tea Shop before. It’s a crime that no one in Columbus seems to know about it, but it’s not surprising at the same time.

  1. This shop is located in the middle of nowhere. The first time we drove up, I thought for sure that the barn in the middle of the corn fields was some elaborate scheme to murder people who obsessively search for tea in the Columbus area.
  2. Mootz Run Tea Shop sells Petali teas. What? Why not just call it Petali Tea Shop? They seem to be the same company as far as I can tell.
  3. The owner doesn’t seem to be that active on social media. I’ve seen a post or two on the Facebook group, but that’s not where the Columbus tea freaks hang. That’s really not even where most of the national teaple hang. They sell on Amazon, but they don’t seem to market to the cool internet teaple, like reddit and Steepster.
  4. The hours are atrocious–Friday and Saturday from 11 to 5. I get that it’s a small shop, so you have to weigh cost vs. customer traffic. But that leaves just 6 hours a week for a Columbus resident to visit, and there’s too much going on in Columbus on Saturdays to want to leave.

But for all the criticisms, this shop makes up for it in everything else. Driving up to the shop for the first time makes you wonder if you’re in the right place, but after the first time, it’s quite literally a breath of fresh air. The wind is blowing through the gentle slopes of grass, corn, or snow, depending on the season. The shop itself looks like it’s a converted barn next to a lovely Victorian house that I want to move into. There’s even a cat sitting by the garden gate for crying out loud.

Fat orange cat sighting!

It’s pretty obvious that the owner either knows a decorator or should have been one. The shop is stunningly beautiful. Light streams in through the many windows and bounces off the high, white ceilings. Looking at my pictures, they don’t really do the place justice. Someone is apparently a fan of plants and animals, which matches up so well with people who love tea. The leaves and vines mingle with the teaware in the bright sunlight and make me feel so warm and fuzzy. I wonder what a couple of cozy armchairs with some kettles for brewing tea would do to a place like that. It’s certainly a room I want to hang out in.

As I said before, there isn’t a huge tea scene in Columbus. If you want to buy a gaiwan or a nice steeper, you’re pretty much stuck with buying off the internet. I’ve gotten a yixing swan set and a nice elephant tea spoon here, which is pretty incredible considering many teashops in the US are English style. In fact, the shop seems to be well balanced between Indian, Asian, and English tea traditions, with English taking the lead because one must, of course, cater to customer preference. They also seem to have some unique sources for teaware, as I haven’t seen many of these on Ali or ebay.

And why not add a little activism to your tea? This shop is a big supporter of elephant approved teas and merchandise. These teas are grown on plantations that participate in reducing human-elephant conflict in India. Are you telling me that I can buy an elephant spoon AND support the conservation of elephants? Elephants are one of my favorite animals; sign me up!

I thought this tea bar to make your own creations was a really interesting touch. But since I am forever the introvert, I am too antisocial to ask how it works.

Okay, on to the teas! Price wise, things are weird. Teas are priced by volume instead of weight. This is great if you prefer the blends that contain heavy fillers, but it kind of sucks if you want something light, like the Hua Shan Yellow. It might just be a great way to price up teas they feel are more expensive. They certainly don’t skimp on the tin-filling, so no worries there. You have to be careful whenever you open a new tin, as the teas will spill out everywhere! Petali also offers discounts for returning customers that bring in their tins and punch cards. I feel their prices are pretty fair.

Petali definitely favors flavored blends. While I personally don’t care for the majority of flavored tea, I do have some favorites. Many of the teas in here I actually can’t stand the smell of, but I can’t fault them at all on personal tastes. However, each time I have been here, I have been able to walk away with 3-4 teas. They are usually dessert blends; my favorites have been Mexican Wedding Cookie, Maple Crème Brulée, and Brown Sugar Bread Pudding. Some of the blends that I’ve had are pretty light on the tea, heavy on flavor, off the wall, but still pretty good, like Choco Coco Toasted Oolong and Honey Polenta Oolong. You can see here in my haul shot that I continued with the dessert theme. The Pumpkin smells scrumptious! Also, I thought the tin labels were a very nice touch.

The wall itself is very well organized, with separate, color coded sections for the different tea types, and different canisters for plain teas versus blends. All the information is printed on the front label, including ingredients, and you’re invited to take all the tins off the wall to sniff at your leisure.

The oolong section. Can we all take a moment to appreciate what a terrible photographer I can be?

From the looks of things, Petali tends to favor Indian for the plain teas (though I imagine they also use them for the blends a lot too). They have some Chinese oolongs, but the spotlight is on their unflavored Darjeelings. They do carry some Nepalese teas, which is pretty rare for a shop, and they also have some things that I’ve only seen “real teaple” get, like puerh stuffed in oranges and wrapped in bamboo!

But for all this innovation and creativity, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if this area were to experience a good Laoshan, Dianhong, or Ai Lao from China. What about a good Jin Xuan or Shan Lin Xi from Taiwan? A sencha or gyokuro from Japan? These, to me, are the best of the tea world, and it would be nice to see them in shops now and then. They don’t even really need flavoring, but imagine what fantastic bases they would make!

Since many of my readers (all one or two of you) aren’t in the Columbus area, you can see some, but not all, of the teas made in this beautiful little shop in the middle of nowhere on Amazon. Another silly thing they do is separate their shops by merchandise type, so you may have to dig a bit.

Happy teaing!

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Review: White2Tea’s 2011 Fuding Aged White

I feel like celebrating. I got a new pot for my birthday. Milche’s latest blood tests came back much improved. It’s been way too long since I’ve done a tea review, so let’s throw one up here!

Silver Pot

I love my new pot. The turtle at the top is what really sold me on it. I’ve named him, and the entire pot by extension, Ralph, after the pet Florida softshell turtle I had in high school. Ralph is made of silver, which is supposed to affect the flavor of the brew. I haven’t noticed anything overtly different, but I’ll have to do a side by side review sometime. In case you were wondering, he comes from Yunnan Sourcing.

Ralph, king of the oolongs
All hail Ralph, king of the oolongs!

And the teapet? His name is Terrence, and he’s actually pretty cool. Terrence is the first (and probably last–there are only so many teapets a person can own) of my color changing teapets. Here’s a video of Terrence in action. He came from a random seller on eBay.

I have a sample of White2Tea’s 2011 Fuding Aged White Tea that I want to try before I place my order for 200 of their A&P cakes (okay, not literally 200 cakes, but A&P is so very good). I don’t have much experience with white tea. I’ve tried my grocery store’s okay brand, What-Cha’s incredible Kenya “Rhino” White, and some unidentified white squares that Liquid Proust is selling offsite that are pure honey. So far, I’ve been very satisfied with my white journey. But aged white? I’m not so sure.

2011 Fuding
Milche wants to celebrate her good blood test results too.

This isn’t the prettiest sample, but then again we don’t drink tea for the looks. If I raked up a bunch of leaves in my front yard, pressed them tightly together, and left them to rot for a year outside, this sample is how I would imagine those leaves to look. The picture of the whole cake on the website looks better, so maybe I just got a bad section.

Wet 2011 Fuding

There was some question as to what temperature I should brew at, so I brewed about 9g in my 160ml pot, going back and forth between 200º and 212ºF. Brew times started at a couple of seconds and increased as the tea died. I think the last steep, which is the one pictured, ended up being about 5 minutes. I’ll give you a little spoiler at this point: I enjoyed this tea at both temperatures, so it didn’t matter. The leaves brewed into a stunning red, a color I wasn’t expecting from the leaves.

2011 Fuding Brew

The tea starts out medicinal. I didn’t really understand that description when people used it for white tea, but I certainly do now. It proves that even when a description is relatable, it sometimes won’t make sense until you actually experience it for yourself. I also got a lot of autumnal leaf pile flavor. To be honest, I didn’t really enjoy the first three steeps of this tea at all.

Like the clouds parting after a storm, the flavor began to open up and become pleasant and warm at the fourth steep. The transformation began with some cinnamon and a touch of honey, though autumnal leaf pile was still the predominating flavor.

It was a freezing cold day, so the brew cooled quickly. At that point, I got a hint of green apple skin, which is a first for me in any kind of tea—pretty impressive! As much as I would like to think that it is my palate adjusting to detect the finer points of a brew, in preparation for my become some sort of tea tasting superhero,  it’s probably just the tea being awesome.

As the leaf mellows out and begins to die, it keeps surprising me with other flavors: vanilla, honey, and dried flowers.

I think my White2Tea doomcart just got a little more expensive.

Happy teaing!

2011 Fuding

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Cooking with Tea: Smoky Tofu Bowl

I had all these grand plans for this blog. I wanted to start from a tea neophyte’s point of view and work my way to where I am now. Then I wanted to do all these research articles to cultivate not only my own tea journey, but those taking it with me as well.

But then life kicked in. I’ve had a lot of after-work projects with strict deadlines due lately, in addition to my ten year marriage anniversary and preparing to go to Seattle for the Northwest Tea Festival. So I have to resort to doing the lower impact posts for right now: teamail, reviews, and things that don’t require a lot of background research. These are already experienced and photographed, so all I have to do is write them up from my notes.

But I will get back on track, most likely after I get back from Seattle and do the write-ups from that trip. The main goal of this blog is supposed to be for starting your own tea journey, but while life is taking over, I’m afraid it’s going to have to be a collection of what is easy to write up for now. Oolong Owl’s sous vide salmon recipe was just recently posted, so I thought I would make this week a theme.

With that in mind, I want to tell you about my experiment in cooking with tea! I acquired some Lapsang Souchong from Petali Teas and some Russian Caravan from Margaret’s Fine Imports. It turns out that I’m not that crazy about drinking smoky teas, but I still wanted to find a way to use the leaves I had left. It turns out that smoky teas are excellent for cooking protein. One of these days, I would like to do a slow-cooked roast with a smoky tea, but I haven’t yet worked up the bravery to do so.

Prepping the Tofu

Tofu

Tofu is a great cheap protein to experiment with. I’ve never worked with any other tofu except for the extra firm, which has the closest texture to meat and seems to be the best for cubing and mixing with other ingredients. It’s packed in water, so prepping it becomes all about drying it out before letting it soak up the tea. Some fancy schmancy people own a tofu press, but I just don’t eat tofu often enough to spend money for it. I instead cut the tofu into smaller bricks, gently squeeze out as much water as I can, wrap them in paper towels, and let them sit in the fridge for a bit.

Infusing the Tea into the Tofu

The next step is infusing the tea into the tofu. Now that the tofu is dry, it should be ready to suck up that tea goodness. I did a particularly strong brew of both teas with a long steeping time: 2 tablespoons per cup of water steeped for 4-5 minutes. I want this tea strong enough to stand up on its own and walk out the door.

After poking a few holes in the tofu with a fork, I put the tofu into bowls and poured the tea over it. If you have one of those chicken flavor injectors, you might want to try injecting some tea directly into the tofu. Then I put lids on and put them in the fridge for a couple of days.

smoky-comparison
Bessie (on the left) is voting for the Lapsang Souchong. Fred (on the right) is voting for the Russian Caravan. Who will win?

Cooking the Tofu

The very first time I tried tofu, it was at a cooking class at work. The recommended baking tofu to give it nice, crispy edges, so I’ve always done that to my tofu. I bake at 350ºF for 45 minutes if I’m doing two packages. I’m not sure how long to bake if you only have one package, but the edges should be a light, crispy brown. Remove from the oven and cut into 1-2 inch cubes.

Making the Meal

Normally, I would place all the tofu into the big pan to start the stir fry dish, but I wanted to compare the flavor differences between the Russian Caravan and Lapsang Souchong. So I put some sesame oil into two small pans and fried them up a little to crisp them up a little more.

After that, it’s throw whatever you want into a big pan and cook it up. I use carrots, celery, garlic, onion, black beans, cauliflower, water chestnuts, and Trader Joe’s Frozen Rice Medley. Depending on what else I have in the fridge, I sometimes add fresh spinach, kale, or dark salad mix of some sort. The great part about this dish is that you can add pretty much any vegetables that are about to go bad!

Don’t forget to add your preferred seasonings: salt, pepper, teriyaki or soy sauce, red peppers, whatever…

smoky-comparison-2

Comparing the Tea

So I brewed Petali’s Lapsang Souchong and Margaret’s Russian Caravan side by side to do a little comparing and contrasting. All I can say now is that I want BBQ. I’m seriously thinking about doing a slow cooked carnitas recipe involving one of these teas.

The leaves of both teas offer up a hint as to the flavor: the lapsang is camphor-smelling, while the caravan is sweeter, more like a BBQ sauce.

smoky-comparison-3

Lapsang Souchong

The smoky smell is strong with this one, but as usual, it doesn’t come out as strongly in the flavor. That’s not to say that it isn’t a strong smoky flavor, because it is. The camphor smell is reflected in the flavor of the tea, along with a menthol flavor.

It kind of reminds me of Carmex, which I kind of don’t mind, but after a while, it starts to lessen the experience overall. Perhaps menthol is not the flavor for me.

After I swallow, it leaves a little tickle in the back of the throat like I just inhaled a little too much smoke at the campfire. I imagine some people might find that unpleasant, but I think it makes the experience more authentic.

Russian Caravan

I lack the vocabulary to describe the difference in the smoky flavor. It’s just different. Maybe a different kind of wood was used for the smoking? It’s still very prevalent, but definitely not as strong as the Lapsang. There’s no camphor flavor or menthol, for which I am grateful.

The flavor of the tea is sweeter, which reflects the smell. There’s a bit more astringency to the tea itself, and it’s leaving a bit of dryness on the back of the palate. It’s like having a BBQ party instead of a campfire.

Tofu Comparison

I found that the difference in the tofu flavors was subtle, but ultimately reflected the differences in the tea brews. The teas lended a nice, smoky flavor to the tofu, with the Lapsang giving a camphor smoke taste, and the Russian Caravan supplying more of a BBQ pit taste. Personally, I preferred the Russian Caravan.

I’ll definitely be keeping these around to be cooking with some meat!

Happy teaing!

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Laoshan Showdown: Yunnan Sourcing vs. Verdant

Some people spend time with their families on Labor Day. Some people drink a lot of chocolatey teas and do a lot of typing. Can you guess which I am?

Intro to Laoshans

Cats at the bar
A behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like if you drink tea and have cats at the same time.

Last week, I did a post on comparing Verdant’s regular and reserve grade Laoshans, and as you can see from my last post, I just got a shipment of blacks in from Yunnan Sourcing, which included both grades of their new Laoshans. Normally I wouldn’t buy both grades from two companies like this, but as Laoshans are my favorite, I thought it would be a good idea to really dig into the differences between grades and companies.

For those who don’t know, Laoshan teas are grown in the Laoshan region of China. I’ve seen greens and oolongs produced in that region (I have an oolong sample I can’t wait to try, but I wasn’t wild about the green), but blacks are my favorite from Laoshan. The typical flavor profile for a Laoshan black is cocoa to chocolate, dark to light breads, and yeasty. It’s about as close as you can get to a dessert without adding flavorings.

A Note on Bias

The great thing about being new to the world of tea is that I am coming in with my own set of expectations. I don’t really care if the tea community has something against an owner or marketing techniques. You can tell me that the tea comes from trees that were blessed by Jesus himself and then stored in the emperor’s private cave in jars made from the first yixing pots out of the famous Dragon Kiln, and I’m still going to be judging it on its flavor:value:feeling ratio.

That being said, accidental bias is still a thing. So I will be tasting all four teas: Yunnan Sourcing for the first time and Verdant as a refresher. Then I’ll do a blind taste of all four.

Prepping for the Showdown

I thought I had a lot of teaware until I started this experiment. Then I realized I don’t have enough gaiwans or enough identical cups to do a fair color comparison while brewing all these teas simultaneously. Though it isn’t ideal, I am going to have to brew these up one at a time.

While this is a lovely excuse to have to go out and get more teaware, I am going to see how often I run into this problem before going gaiwan shopping.

Dry Leaf Comparison

Laoshan Dry Leaf Comparison

Visually, all four of these look pretty identical. There is some slight color variation, but the difference is so slight that it’s hardly worth noting. The real difference in dry leaf comes from the smell. I didn’t know that these companies sourced from different farmers when first began this test. I actually suspected that they came from the same location. But it’s immediately apparent from the scent of the leaves that these are NOT from the same farm. A little research as I am writing this up reveals that Verdant comes from the He family farm, and Yunnan Sourcing comes from the Liang family farm.

YS Classic vs. YS Imperial

YS Laoshan Comparison

The classic version smells a little like Hershey’s chocolate, maybe with a touch of raisin and a nutty, Halloween candy sort of scent. The Imperial grade is even sweeter, and it smells EXACTLY like the bottom of a Halloween candy bucket the night after a humid Florida evening of trick-or-treating.

YS Classic vs. Verdant Classic

Comparing Classic Laoshans

The smell of these dry leaves is almost identical, but the Yunnan Sourcing smells just a touch stronger.

YS Imperial vs. Verdant Reserve

Comparing the Higher Grades

This comparison had the most distinct difference in aroma. Verdant is a dark cocoa butter where Yunnan Sourcing is that sugary Halloween candy. If I breathe in the Yunnan Sourcing first, my nostrils are so washed out with the Halloween scent that the Verdant no longer smells sweet at all to me.

Yunnan Sourcing

Brew Colors
Notice the distinct difference in the brews’ colors. Interesting.

Classic Laoshan

Once brewed, the wet leaves lose their Halloweeny smell, for which I am grateful. Trashy American chocolate isn’t really my thing in either tea or food form. The aroma is more like a burnt chocolate pudding, a scent I can definitely get behind. I’m one of those people that actually enjoys eating the skin off of a cooling chocolate pudding.

The brew is a bit thin, lacking in body and depth, for a black tea. There is a light cocoa flavor, a sugary sweetness, and a hint of yeasty sourness. That hint of Halloween candy is back on the finish. As the brew cools, it gets sweeter. There is also some slight astringency on the back of the palate.

Subsequent steepings reveal a bright, yeasty honey flavor with a wash of cocoa on the finish. Though it’s still on the astringent side, the brew definitely thickens and sweetens as it cools. I’m still getting that Halloween candy flavor out the nose.

Though this tea is perfectly pleasant, I know I’ve had better Laoshans than this.

Yunnan Sourcing has this to say about the Classic: “Our Classic grade, although not as small and fine as its Imperial counterpart, it is more robust in taste and has more of a dark chocolate bite to it. It is very smooth with a golden yellow tea soup that is viscous and soupy.”

I could not disagree with this assessment more.

Imperial Laoshan

The brew to this smells more appealing after the Classic version—more like a chocolate biscuit. The wet leaves almost smell like a hot cereal with cocoa. There’s something almost liquor smelling about the brewing leaves that leaves me a little dizzy with anticipation. I’ve never had the Godiva chocolate liquor, but it’s how I would imagine it to smell.

The cocoa flavor is much more pronounced than in the YS Classic.; it comes out of my nose as I breathe out. The dark chocolate flavor becomes sugary as it cools, and the flavor turns a little bready. I’m getting chocolate croissant feelings from this tea. There’s a bit of astringency that brews out in subsequent steeps, and any bitterness is like that of a dark chocolate rather than a bitter black tea; it’s very faint.

Yunnan Sourcing has this to say about the Imperial: “The taste is sweet and voluminous with notes of cane sugar, chocolate and baked yams.  The Classic Laoshan Black we offer is also excellent with a more robust taste and a little more of the dark chocolate bite to it.  I recommend getting a little of each grade to start and then decide for yourself which you like best!”

I’ve already weighed in on the fact that I don’t agree with their assessment between Classic and Imperial. I didn’t really get much sweet potato from these, and even if I somehow missed it, it’s definitely nothing like you would get from a Yunnan black. I pretty much only agree with the chocolate and sugarcane notes.

Verdant Rehash and Comparison

Laoshan Comparison Brew and Leaf

As I pointed out in my post on reviewers, taste is determined by a lot of different factors. So I did a quick rehash of the Verdant teas not only so they would be fresh in my mind, but also in case there was something in my mood or environment affecting how I am tasting the tea today.

Classic Laoshan

This has a very pronounced bready taste, but it isn’t like the dark bread of the Verdant Reserve. It’s more like a chocolate biscuit. There’s much more yeast and much less cocoa flavor than the two higher graded Laoshans.

Reserve Laoshan

This is definitely a very, very dark yeasty bread with a dark chocolate. The brew comes out much darker and redder than the other teas on the first steep.

Comparing this brew to the YS Imperial, the chocolate notes are more pronounced, and the brew is smoother without the astringency.

Blind Tasting and Final Rankings

Blind Tasting
Side note: These brews were sitting a while, and 3 out of 4 got cloudy. The same one that stayed clear in the Verdant post from earlier is the one that Is clear this time. Does anyone know why they get cloudy?

I was thinking at this point that I had a pretty good idea where my rankings were, but it’s always a good thing to eliminate bias when doing a taste test. I assigned each tea a number 1-4 and mixed them up so I no longer knew which leaf was which.

I managed to correctly identify each tea, so I’m definitely not imagining the differences in taste. Here are my final rankings:

Tied for 1st and 2nd Place: Verdant Reserve and Yunnan Sourcing Imperial

3rd Place: Verdant Classic

4th Place: Yunnan Sourcing Classic

Bonus Neophyte Round

As I’ve mentioned before, my husband isn’t really into tea. I always give him sips of what I am drinking, and he usually responds with, “Tastes like tea.” I left the brews in the bubble cups out until he stumbled out of bed. The brews were cold, but that hardly mattered to him. There were no identifying marks on the teas; only I knew which was which. I had him rank them, and though he said he had some trouble distinguishing between the four, his final rankings were similar to mine:

  1. Yunnan Sourcing Imperial
  2. Verdant Reserve
  3. Verdant Classic
  4. Yunnan Sourcing Classic

Final Impressions

I like to weigh cost vs. flavor, so let’s look at the rankings again with price per gram (note that these are bullets and not numbers…I’m not subliminally ranking 1st and 2nd:

  • Verdant Reserve: $0.30 per gram
  • Yunnan Sourcing Imperial: $0.19 per gram
  • Verdant Classic: $0.18 per gram
  • Yunnan Sourcing Classic: $0.12 per gram

 

In my opinion, this makes things pretty clear. Flavor wise alone, I would say Verdant Reserve just barely nudges out Yunnan Sourcing Imperial. But if you add in the price differential, I would say the final, final rankings are thus:

  1. Yunnan Sourcing Imperial Grade Laoshan Black
  2. Verdant 2016 Reserve Spring Laoshan Black
  3. Verdant Spring 2016 Laoshan Black
  4. Yunnan Sourcing Classic Grade Laoshan Black

 

I should note that I re-steeped all the used leaves western style separately throughout the day so I could get an impression of each tea on its own without a comparison. All of the teas were lovely on their own, with sweet, chocolate notes just like they should have. It’s only on sitting down and comparing them that I can find flaws and distinct weaknesses. So take from these reviews what you will. Whether you prefer the sound of a certain flavor profile I’ve described or you want the absolute cheapest tea possible, it’s going to be a pleasant experience.

Happy teaing!

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Review: Verdant Tea 2016 Laoshan and Reserve Laoshan Black

Laoshan vs. Laoshan Reserve

I have a special place in my heart for Verdant Tea. Their 5 for $5 deal for first time buyers is a great deal, especially as it comes with a $5 off your next order. I will say that I didn’t enjoy all 5 teas, but their Laoshan black sample opened my eyes to what Chinese black tea (which, by the way, is called red tea to the Chinese) can really be.

For those who’ve only ever had black tea from bags or even from most tea stores, you’re probably used to the drying, bitter, malty notes that aren’t without a charm of their own—the Indian blacks. It’s what casual-tea-drinking Americans consider the foundation of what tea is supposed to taste like. I drank and adored these teas from my first Lipton iced tea as a child, to my discovery of Twinings English breakfast with milk and sugar in my teens, to the loose leaf peachy black I discovered at Churchill’s Fine Teas in Cincinnati a year ago.

In this timeline of tea discovery, I believed that tea was tea-flavored, and if you wanted it to taste like something other than tea, you had to add flavors to it. Enter my sample of Verdant’s 2015 Autumn Laoshan black. My adventures in Chinese blacks from that point on showed me that black teas can taste malty, fruity, sinfully chocolatey, and even sweet potatoey.

Since that first sip, I’ve dedicated more than half of my precious cabinet space to discovering what black teas can really taste like. And since Verdant had a sale on all the tea from the He family, I get the perfect opportunity to compare the different Laoshan black teas. For today, I’m sticking with the 2016 regular and reserve Laoshan Black.

The Spring 2016 Laoshan black is currently going for $4.50 for 25g. For one of my favorite teas, I’d say that’s a pretty decent price. The reserve version, when it wasn’t sold out, went for $7.50 for 25g, which is quite a price hike. When these teas were released for the season, the most common question I heard was, “Is it worth the extra money to get the reserve?” That’s what today is all about.

Laoshan Dry Leaf Comparison
Comparing Reserve dry leaf on the left with Regular on the right.

Comparing the dry leaf, I’m not noticing too much of a difference. The leaf of the regular might be a tiny bit bigger, or maybe a tiny bit thicker on average than the reserve, but that may be because I am trying to find some discernable difference between them.

2016 Reserve Laoshan Black

Reserve Laoshan

The aroma of the dry leaves is stronger than the regular, sweet and chocolatey with a bit of a bread scent. I brewed about 4g in 50ml at 205ºF, ranging from 10 seconds to 3 minutes, and the color brewed into a nice dark, golden honey color that smelled of earth, yams, and chocolate. It’s a dark, seductive kind of flavor that comes up the palate and out the nose. There’s also a very slight bitterness and peppery flavor on the finish.

The cocoa and sweet potato notes are highlighted more on subsequent steeps, but caramel and honey are also introduced after steep 4. After a while, I started to lose counts of the steepings, but I got a little dark honey bread flavor toward the end.

It seems a pretty forgiving tea; even brewing at boiling and steeping for what seemed like forever only brought out darker flavors, but that’s pretty typical of a tea like this.

Looking at Verdant’s tasting notes, I feel as though they pretty accurately represented the flavor: cocoa, sweet potato, cranberry, graham cracker. I can never find fruit flavors in black tea, so I don’t find that particularly surprising.

2016 Laoshan Black

Pondy joins tea time
Pond cat sits at the bar and politely wonders why she cannot eat Carl the Carp.

The less-often seen Pond cat has decided to join me for the rest of this tasting. She’s about five years old and is much less sociable than Milche, so don’t let the adorable triangle nose fool you. I’m the only one allowed to touch her, and she usually follows me around the house with Swim Fan-like obsession. She started off as Amelia Bedelia after my favorite childhood book series, but that morphed into Amelia Pond from Doctor Who, to finally just “Pond.”

Anyway, breathing in the dry leaf yields some differences from the Reserve. There’s the predominating aroma of cocoa, of course, but there’s an underlying sourness that reminds me of very dark brown honey wheat bread. There’s something yeasty about the smell. This aroma is reflected in the brew, as it has a bready chocolate scent.

2016 Laoshan
Carl the Carp is entranced at the golden color of the Laoshan. He’s such an indulgent tea pet.

The first steep definitely yields a less-sweet flavor, more like a gassy, yeasty dark bread with hardly any chocolate. This changes in subsequent steeps to a chocolate honey bread. Perhaps if they made a pain au chocolat out of a dark wheat flour and drizzled a bit of honey on top, that is what this would taste like. Stephen, my non-tea-drinking husband, took a sip and proclaimed that it tasted like a dark chocolate beer, so we’re pretty close in agreement.

Verdant’s tasting notes describe this tea as cocoa, malt, toasted grain, citrus, cherry, vanilla, and honey. Seems I did get some of the same things they did.

Comparing the Two Flavors

To compare the two teas, the regular is brighter colored than the reserve in terms of flavor, and less earthy. There is less chocolate, and no sweet potato in the regular brew. The brighter flavors are more like honey. The reserve brew definitely lacks the brighter flavors and goes deeper into the dark realms of sinful, dark, dark chocolate.

Wet Leaf and Brew Comparison
Both of these brews are cool, so I’m not sure why the reserve clouded up and the regular didn’t.

They were both fantastic teas, to be sure, but I preferred the reserve black. However, that difference in price tag may mean that I’ll be sticking to the regular Laoshan, or at least getting smaller batches of the reserve.

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Review: Rice Ripened Loose Pu-erh Pyramid Tea Bag

It’s a bright green, sweltering morning, the kind that can only dawn after a summer torrent the night before. It’s been a difficult summer for your Cocker Spaniel, Sparky, since he got a yeast infection on his feet last week, so you want to treat him to a nice walk in the woods behind your house.

Now, you might have a different dog with a different name in your fantasy. I don’t even particularly like Cocker Spaniels, at least American Cockers, but there’s a specific reason why I’ve chosen this particular dog.

It was a pretty violent storm last night, and the trail behind your house is soaked and covered in little pieces of dark, wet bark. You explore the trails for about two hours and head home just as Sparky is beginning to tire and the sun is beginning to grow unbearably hot.

You bring Sparky into the mudroom, and you can smell his yeasty feet all the way from his position on the grimy tiles. You crouch down on the ground and pick up his front paw, separating his pads so you can see through the matted hair clumps between his toes to the villi-like growths on the foot leather. You lean in, ignoring the overwhelming cloud of wet corn chip scent that envelopes your face and shoves its way down your nostrils. You stick out your tongue and gently lick Sparky’s yeasty, wet foot pad, much to his bewilderment.

Teavivre Rice Puerh

That’s what this tea tasted like. After a good 15 second rinse, I brewed this bag for about 5 minutes in boiling water. Honestly, I think the recommended 9-12 minutes’ steeping time is overkill; it’s not as though I am going to impart some new exciting flavor in that extra 5 to 8 minutes.

I think it was the rice that made that yeasty, corn chippy scent and flavor. I could kind of see how the smell was related to rice, but it just tended toward the side of dog feet smell. Even my coworker, sitting three feet away from me, commented on how this tea smelled like dog feet. It tasted much like it smelled: heavy on the ricey, yeasty flavor, but add in some wet wood flavor and just a hint of fishbone from the shou.

And yet, despite this disgusting description, I still drank the entire cup. I’m not sure what this says about me and my palate. I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed this tea, but it was a certain sort of experience.

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Are reviewers pointless?

The entire world is based on opinions these days: social media, blogs, and comment sections on practically every packet of information available. Every human being in the world is shouting out their own point of view as loudly as possible, and it makes you wonder if anyone is even taking the time to truly listen and understand.

But even when people are listening, opinions are so different that you may or may not start to wonder in the dark recesses of your mind if your opinion is the only one that matters. These are the kinds of thoughts I’ve had when reading reviews against teas I’ve tasted:

  • Everyone says that this tea is fantastic, but I think it tastes like soap.
  • This tea is called French Toast, but to me it tastes like vanilla pudding.
  • Everyone says this tea is fruity, but it tastes malty to me.

So how do we make the most use out of reading reviews to choose teas we love and avoid teas we hate? How do we make our own reviews most helpful to others? What I have to keep in mind when reading and writing reviews is that the taste of a tea is subject to so many factors…

Taste is based on memories, psychology, and life experience; it’s subjective as hell.

People tend to judge the flavors of tea through the filters of their own experience with other foods and drinks.

Let’s start with lavender first as an example. A lot of people love blends that contain lavender, especially earl grey. I’ve tried so many blends that have lavender in it, and I’ve really hated them all. I don’t see how people can drink lavender tea. It took me a while to figure out why. I’ve been using lavender bath products since I was a kid, and I just don’t think my brain is capable of separating the lavender smell from the idea of soap.

Then there’s the ubiquitous pumpkin spice. Think about pumpkin spice really hard for a moment; do you really, really ever taste the pumpkin part of the pumpkin spice? Be honest with yourself, because if you think about it hard enough, there really is no pumpkin flavor in about 95% of pumpkin spice flavored things. I’ve even run across “pumpkin flavored” items that are actually just pumpkin spiced items. So why are people tasting pumpkin in pumpkin spice? Why the hell is it even called pumpkin spice if there’s no pumpkin in it? It’s because of tradition; in American cuisine, those spices usually only appear in that combination in pumpkin pie, which does contain pumpkin. Since much of my experience with these spices together centers around pumpkin pie, my brain automatically fills in the pumpkin. This can happen with other foods too.

Another issue is food experience and culture. Someone growing up in the southern part of the U.S. is going to have a very different take on flavors than someone growing up in Japan, but we don’t even have to go that far. A poor person will have different references for taste than a wealthy one. People of differing ethnicities living next door to one another will have different references. No matter how much a tea tastes like longan fruit to someone, the person who has never even heard of that fruit is going to have difficulty relating, and will most likely describe the tea completely differently.

And then there’s just the simple fact that despite everything, our brains interpret flavors differently even when differing social circles don’t factor into it. No matter how many black olives I make my husband try, he’s never going to like black olives, which obviously makes him insane. How some people don’t like black tea is beyond me; even when it’s malty and bitter, it’s still fantastic. I still get incredulous exclamations of “HOW CAN YOU NOT LIKE CHOCOLATE?!” when I tell people I am just not a fan of milk chocolate. It just happens.

Also, another quick point to I want to tack on here, experience in the tea world itself matters. It’s difficult for someone to know that a bad tea is bad if they haven’t even had the good stuff yet.

Brewing parameters can change the taste of a tea drastically.

These are all factors that can make a sweet tea into a sour, soapy gut bomb, and not all of them are in your control at all times:

  • Weight to water ratio
  • Water temperature
  • Water hardness/softness
  • Steeping time
  • Brewing vessel

This post is already long enough, so I’ll save the details on these points for another day.

The smallest thing can affect your taste buds.

As a reviewer, it’s even possible to lie to and mislead yourself, which pretty much means that there is no hope for us to be 100% reliable as taste reviewers. Your own day-to-day experiences can make a tea taste drastically different from one day to the next:

  • How long it’s been since you’ve eaten and how hungry you are
  • What you’ve eaten that day
  • What kinds of smells you are surrounded by as you drink
  • What kind of mood you’re in
  • What your surroundings are: weather, indoors, outdoors, forest, city, bathroom, etc.

How to read and write reviews to everyone’s advantage.

So how do I find reviewers I trust? What strategies do I use in writing reviews to make them more accessible to people? I don’t always succeed in these endeavors, but I do try to keep them in mind when I read and write.

Find people with similar tastes to yours.

Most bloggers and reviewers are pretty easy to pin down as far as what directions their preferences face. Some bloggers will only review certain kinds of teas. Try looking up some of your favorite teas on Steepster and follow those people that rate them highly.

Read tea reviews to find a common thread.

This is a pretty simple one. Look up the teas on the business’ website, if the website allows for users to give feedback. Keep in mind though that some sites only feature positive reviews. You can also go on Steepster to find unbiased reviews on a tea.

Chances are, if 10 people says that the tea tastes like library books, it probably tastes like library books.

Watch your language!

Because readers are coming from so many different backgrounds, I try not to be too exotic when describing the flavors I am getting. I have had some teas that taste exactly like green peanuts pulled fresh from the ground, but how many people know that flavor? So while I might use that phrase, I also try to add in simpler flavors as well to help out. Green boiled peanuts have an earthy, dirty taste to them, but with a nutty kind of beaniness that balances the earthiness with a sweetness. While this may not be as concise a description as green peanuts, it does make some headway into helping translate. And yes, I do have a tendency to make up words like beaniness when writing reviews.

I have to admit that I am not always successful at this, but I try to step back in a review and give an emotionless account of a tea’s flavor before giving an actual opinion. That way people can decide for themselves if they want to try it. It’s not fair for me to vent about the terrible flavor of a sheng if I hate sheng, so I try to identify the flavors I am tasting instead before reacting to them. I try to keep in mind that someone might actually like the flavors I am reacting badly to, so I describe them instead of just saying that a tea is terrible.

Hopefully this advice will help you newbies out there find sources and opinions that will lead you to more great teas and fewer awful teas.

Happy teaing!