Scour a store for tea and you will probably find that the prices for the teas offered can vary wildly. The best comparison for this kind of variance can be found in the world of wine, where a bottle of two buck Chuck can be procured as well as bottles that run in the range of several thousand dollars. Caviar is expensive. Fish sticks are cheap. Let’s explore expensive whole leaf tea to consider the cost.
To start off, expensive teas equate to better tea. But that’s also like saying a Rembrandt painting is better than a Japanese wood block. The flavor characteristics and quality of one kind of tea- say a first flush Indian Darjeeling black tea differ dramatically from that of a Japanese Gyokuro green tea. The attributes and what is highly desired in one fluctuates from the other. This also leaves room for the matter of personal taste. That question of quality and cost comes fully into view though when the origin is consistent. Pair a first pick Darjeeling to be tasted alongside one that is subpar. What you would find is that you can pick up that one is better from the other. A low quality tea is bitter, harsh, looks ugly, and has no aroma or sweetness. When you come across a high quality tea, it can surprise you with its interesting flavor, aroma, sweetness, and color.
In mulling the cost of expensive tea, Darjeeling black tea provides a good foundation from which to illustrate the idea. You can look at tea books from the 1920’s that mention Darjeeling. It has developed a reputation as the “champagne” of the tea world. Darjeeling black tea is three percent of India’s total tea output. First flush Darjeeling is produced only once a year and is prized as the first growth with unique character. Why is it expensive—because it’s rare. A lot of work goes into making a tea at that level versus a tea that is sold at $1 per pound. Let’s say there are 10 estates out of 72 which produce top grade first flush Darjeeling. We receive samples from the 10 that we taste to winnow the pool down to three, finally ordering our top selection. Darjeeling lots are very small (about 100 to 200 pounds), which might sound like a lot of tea. One hundred pounds equates to 400 4-ounce tins of loose tea. You could argue that the first flush Darjeeling selected is the best in the world and only 400 people get to drink it.
Down the road from the estate where we have bought that exquisite first flush Darjeeling, perhaps there is a factory where tea leaves plucked with hand shears are processed in a CTC machine to produce a strong cup of tea at a low price of $1 per pound. Where the first flush facility is wary of damaging the bush, the factory aims to pull as many leaves as possible that accounts for a disparity of 2 pounds plucked at the first flush estate versus 20 pounds plucked at the factory. First flush Darjeeling is weather specific: knowing when to pluck the leaves is contingent on climate. It can’t rain too much. It can’t be dry. It can’t hail. The leaves have to be plucked in the morning before it gets too hot, which in the spring yields smaller leaves because it’s cold. Tea estate managers know the first flush leaves can go for a good price, but there are eight or nine things that can go wrong and mess up the batch, making it drop to a lower grade tea. So much skill is involved in ensuring the natural changes in the leaves are manipulated well. This also speaks to why some estates consistently produce better teas; it’s like dining at a restaurant where you enjoy the steak. So much of that enjoyment stems from the skill of the chef.
Now, think about the cost of tea offerings at a store by the cup. Let’s say you walk into a market and see a box of 100 tea bags that costs $6. Each cup of tea costs six cents per serving. That’s amazing. When you taste a cup of the tea, it’s not horrible, but it’s ordinary. Perhaps instead you eye a 4-ounce tin of first flush Darjeeling loose tea for $24.50. Each cup of the champagne of tea will cost you 61 cents. You can’t even get a glass of wine for that price. Tea is one of the last great food deals anywhere. The math is compelling and if you consider the per cup cost, you can drink the best tea in the world for not very much. Life is too short to drink six-cent cups of tea. So, go ahead and treat yourself.
During my time as a barista, I made countless lattes. Traditionally a latte starts with a perfectly pulled shot of espresso and 8 ounces of freshly steamed milk poured on top, leaving ¼ inch room for foam with the consistency of “melted ice cream” to top it off. Tea lattes were a bit of a red-headed stepchild back then and I’m excited to see they are now being given the attention they deserve.
With the variety of tea flavors available, tea lattes inherently provide a wider range of flavor profiles than coffee. Chai lattes are the most popular of the tea lattes, with matcha quickly gaining in interest. I’ve only recently learned of the London Fog latte which is made with Earl Grey tea and vanilla. Our own Orange Dulce makes a tasty London Fog alternative as it’s a black tea that is already blended with bergamot and vanilla. You can steep black tea, green tea, or herbal tisanes to be used in a latte. I love playing with different pouches and loose leaves to see how they do. We have many teas that steep well for this purpose. I’ve found that our Vanilla Bean black tea works especially well, as does African Nectar—each offers its own sweetness that is enhanced with steamed milk.
Along with tea, milk is an essential ingredient in a tea latte. Whole milk typically gives the best balance in flavor and the fat content results in a glossy micro-bubble foam that is thicker and creamier. Some customers would come into the coffee shop believing that nonfat milk would produce the best foam, though I’ve never found that to be the case. When I’m making a chai latte for myself I prefer to use soy milk because cows milk doesn’t carry the spice notes as well. Soy milk also has a slight sweetness that balances well with the spices. I have a good friend, however, who adores her matcha latte made with coconut milk and unsweetened. Tea lattes are great regardless of the type of milk you use and you should select your milk based on your personal preference.
Thick foam is best achieved with the aeration and pressure of a good espresso machine. Since most of us cannot afford to invest as much as a café on such a machine we are lucky to have more attainable options. My Dad, however, loves to recount how my Mom was able to achieve the perfect foam while camping. She heated the milk over the campfire in a saucepan and using a fork whisked the milk into a frothy frenzy. So I’m a firm believer that where there’s a will there’s a way. For something completely different you can blend cold milk and matcha on high in a blender for 10 seconds and pour over ice for a great foamy iced matcha latte. It’s important to remember that even in coffeehouses it takes trial and error, and a little practice to make a good latte.
So, now, you try it: Select your tea pouch. Based on the type of tea, steep 1 pouch (or 1 teaspoon loose leaf) in 6 ounces of water at the specified temperature and for the allotted steeping time. (Black teas steep for 3-5 minutes at 212°F. Green teas steep for 2-3 minutes at 170-180°F. Herbal infusions brew for 5-7 minutes at 212°F). Remove the tea and top it off with 6 ounces of steamed milk. If you are successful at making foam, spoon it on top of the latte. Enjoy!
Tasting teas calls to mind a shift in mindset. There is a difference between sitting down and enjoying a cup of tea compared to tasting tea. To taste tea is to evaluate it critically. At work, I taste teas everyday whether sampling teas that are newly produced and blended or ingredients we’ve purchased to see how they taste as they’re aging. As I’m tasting, I’m judging whatever tea I’m sampling against my recollection of my gold standard, the best version of that tea I’ve tried. After 30 years of tasting teas, I’ve developed a flavor bank upon which I can compare teas. If you’re a tea drinker and want to conduct your own tastings at home, there are several things you will want to consider as you get started.
First, treat every tea exactly the same. To conduct a tea tasting at home of say, seven Earl Grey black teas, use seven identical cups so you will have the same thickness of ceramic, color, etc. Then, display the tea leaves in front of each cup if using loose tea, or if using tea bags, cut them open to display the leaves inside—this allows you to see the leaf cut size (whole leaves / broken / fannings / CTC / other ingredients) and begin comparing them. Brew each tea correctly using the same water, temperature and length of time. These consistencies cup-to-cup allow the differences in the teas themselves come through.
Next, balance between keeping an open mind and thinking critically about each cup of tea. It can be easy to select your favorite from the bunch, but just as important is to consider the choices each tea blender made in composing each blend. Using Earl Grey black tea as an example, the Russian-style is pungent with bergamot. The British-style, to my palate can taste medicinal.The Persian-style of Earl Grey tastes lighter, cleaner and more delicate—you don’t know it’s Earl Grey until you stop and think about it. The American-style tends to be light and more citrusy. When tasting teas at home with an open mind, questions might arise as to why these differences exist. Elements to consider include what culture the tea blend is coming from. Is it from a new tea brand or an old one? It might also trigger questions about what flavor profiles and aspects of flavor are most appealing in different cultures.
While learning how to taste tea years ago with my mentor, Jim Reynolds, he taught me a valuable lesson. Aside from qualifying if I liked a tea or not, he challenged me to ask of the tea we sampled, “is it a good representation of what this tea is supposed to be?” Tea is like wine. A California Chardonnay will taste different from a French Chardonnay.
When tasting teas, pay attention to the taste and the after-taste. Some teas can start out sharp and mellow over time in your mouth to something sweet and pleasant. Other times a sharp tea might stay sharp to the end. I also like to think about the long after-taste that happens 10-15 minutes after tasting a tea. What lingers on and does it make your mouth feel better? As you taste, it’s important to focus on the cup in front of you and not the last or next cup.
In the office, we conduct our tea tastings quietly. We don’t talk until everyone has a chance to taste. Part of the fascination in tasting teas is the associations that can leap into your mind as you taste tea. Tea flavors can be subtle and those associations are fleeting. Tasting tea might transport you to the living room of your grandmother’s house with memories of being eight years-old. Maybe you haven’t thought about your grandmother in weeks but the aroma or flavor takes you back. Our sense of smell is connected to our memories and it’s no accident. Every aroma and taste is composed of chemical compounds. Maybe it’s the lavender ingredient that brought you suddenly back to grandma’s house? I call that the surprise in the cup. You never know when the associations will happen. So as you set out to start tasting teas at home, prepare yourself for fun. You never know where tasting teas will take you.
By 10:30 a.m. every morning I’ve tried at least 10 teas. That puts the morning cup of tea in perspective, doesn’t it? But as the VP of Tea at Mighty Leaf, my days are packed with whole leaf tea. More than anything I’m diligent about tasting tea, lots of samples so as an example, when differences arise in say a black tea tasting, I’m able to stop and ask, “what’s different about this tea?” Tasting tea is like exercising a muscle, or maybe like studying a painting. The more it’s done, the better shape my palate is in to taste discrepancies or nuances. In addition to tasting tea, my day-to-day job involves communicating with our suppliers and cross-checking with the people I work with to secure ingredients from around the world. What I love about tea is it’s the ultimate yin-yang; it’s both simple and complex. My days are full of work that I’m passionate about and I work closely with our tea team, Anni and Danielle to ensure the teas we blend and provide to our customers taste great with fantastic aroma.
My interest in tea started like perhaps many others. Growing up, my mom would throw tea parties and her interest in tea trickled down to me. After college, I took on a job at Peet’s Coffee & Tea. At the time, there were only 5 stores. As I worked at Peet’s I embraced tasting tea and coffee, which led me to conduct internal trainings. This started out as a part-time position that then grew into a full-time position. My interest in coffee waned and my desire to drink and understand tea grew. Jim Reynolds, now roastmaster emeritus at Peet’s mentored me in tea as I learned on the job. Over time and after 5 years of working with Jim directly, I began purchasing the teas for Peet’s, which also provided hands-on experiences traveling to tea-growing regions to meet with our suppliers. In 1995, I visited India for the first time, then in 1999, I first visited China. I draw inspiration from the care and diligence shown by the people who produce great teas, and I love traveling in countries where it’s consumed liberally. The business of tea is old-fashioned and relationship-driven—something I enjoy immensely. I worked at Peet’s for 30 years and am now thrilled to be a part of Mighty Leaf Tea.
As the tea assistant at Mighty Leaf, I steep hundreds of teas a week for cuppings. Working with tea everyday creates awareness in the rest of my life. When I steep tea, my full attention is focused on ensuring the tea is steeped properly and my thoughts drift to the passion used to create these teas.
My mom brewed tea regularly when I was a child and I relished the opportunity to tear open a new tea box and discover which ceramic creatures were hidden inside. When I discovered Russian Caravan Black Tea years later, I knew tea had completely won me over. I still drink Russian Caravan and also enjoy Lapsang Souchong for the same reasons. I loved how it enveloped me in warmth and had a smooth richness I hadn’t found in coffee. Little did I know, it would become my livelihood years later.
While studying Industrial Design in college, I took a job at Market Hall in Oakland where I perfected my barista techniques and continued to develop my tea palate. I began picking up on the nuances of tea— its subtle flavors and complex layers. After 4 years there, I moved on to Peet’s as a trainer and shift lead, successfully competed in several rounds of a barista competition, and participated as a sensory judge for other barista competitions.
While I appreciate coffee, I always come back to tea. Tea is amazing! Its origins and how it’s grown influence the final cup. The flavor profiles and character of tea are so versatile. At Mighty Leaf, I spend every day focused on my passion and I’m looking forward to sharing it with you!
At the age of six or seven, my Dad would sit me down regularly and say, “It’s time for a cup of tea.” He served black tea with honey. A few years later, he moved to South Africa and in high school, my brother and I flew out to see him. He took us to a fancy resort so we could have teatime. I still remember the taste of the Keemun tea from the resort fondly. So, the tea bug had bitten me early on, but it kept growing. During high school, I leaned heavily on tea to help me pull through all-nighters, trying as many teas as I could. In college, I began reading tea books from the library like “The New Tea Lover’s Treasury” by James Norwood Pratt and got it into my head that one day I wanted to meet him. I developed a preference for loose teas and visited an Asian grocery store in Charlotte, NC for loose leaf tea, which at the time was hard to find.
In college, I studied music business but worked at a tearoom where I continued my tea tasting studies and a co-worker opened my eyes to single origin black teas, gyokuro, and my fast favorite, green oolongs. After college, I moved to South Korea to pursue a Fulbright. While there, I taught English and studied the Korean tea ceremony and Korean drumming. In Asia, I realized people opened teahouses dedicated to loose leaf tea and made a living from it. With the encouragement of fellow Fulbrighters, my career path shifted to one steeped in tea.
Upon my return to the states, I moved to Savannah, Georgia and waitressed at a tea room—I wanted to see how they operate and save money so one day I could open my own. Over time, it became clear how difficult it would be to make a living in the US running a teahouse and that I needed to rethink my plan. I decided to move to China. The manager at the tea room invited me to accompany her to the World Tea Expo where I finally met James Norwood Pratt. I asked him where I should move in China and he suggested either Hangzhou or Fujian. Before I moved to China, I worked for Devan Shah’s tea company for a year and a half. But China beckoned.
In Hangzhou, I applied and studied at Zhejiang University (浙江大学), recognized as the third best college in China (with the first two being in Beijing where no tea grows). For two years, I studied Mandarin and later worked part time as a teacher, pursuing my passion of tea in my off-hours. I led tea tours and traveled to points of tea origin. A teacher of mine encouraged me to apply to the tea science program at Zhejiang, so I applied and was accepted to study for a master’s in tea science. During my studies, I attended the World Tea Expo in the United States and met Eliot Jordan. He had been looking to hire a tea assistant immediately; while the job sounded tempting, I needed to finish my studies. He hired Anni Pattee during that interim period. He offered me a job in September and I started in January – I’ve been surrounded by tea ever since :).
Since I’ve been tea buyer at Mighty Leaf Tea, my job consists of juggling what we need to cup for QA or purchasing decisions with correspondence to our vendors. It’s clear how each step of my path led me deeper into tea and my job keeps me rooted in my passion for tea with people equally invested in the pursuit of great tea.
At Mighty Leaf Tea, our whole leaf tea goes through rigorous tastings to ensure they are ready for you to buy and brew at home. Take a sneak peek of one of our tea cuppings by clicking here or on the photo below to meet the tea team of Eliot Jordan, Danielle Hochstetter, and Anni Pattee. We will be bringing you freshly brewed ideas and talking about our favorite two leaves and a bud. Join us!
With summer right around the corner it’s perfect timing for National Iced Tea Day. Start developing your daily chill out routine by choosing fresh-brewed, all natural and zero calorie iced tea that delivers ultimate refreshment. Go one step further and experiment with mixing up delicious and unique iced tea based beverages like an Earl Grey Arnold Palmer. Check out our simple recipe and enjoy! Read More…