07 September 2009

Four Jasmine Teas from Upton: Pearls, Flowers, Chung-Hao and Yin-Hao

"So," you say. "Meryl, I'm kind of new to tea (or maybe not so new), but what is the deal with all these different kinds of jasmines? I mean, what the heck? It's tea with flowers added, right? How different could they be?"

"Not so!" says I. "You can't believe how much jasmine teas can vary in both taste and price! The good news is, I'm going to lay it all out straight for you."

So, for the re-inaugeral review, I present a four-part Very Special Episode. Today, we will be sampling four different jasmine teas - they are from the same company, but at different (mostly quite affordable) price points. The aim of this test was to try to explain some of the differences between different types of jasmine tea and why some are more expensive than others, and to see if a cheaper kind can approximate a more expensive kind. Some of us are penniless graduate students (heh) and can't exactly be buying Organic Dragon Phoenix Pearl every single day, y'know?

(From right to left: Flowers, Chung-Hao, Yin-Hao, Pearls)

First, a little background to get us oriented.

Although they're often called green teas, jasmines are very rarely a true green. The leaves undergo some extra steps in the preparation process in which they are scented, and this lets them oxidize a bit more and turns them into a "pouchong" - somewhere between a green and an oolong. (I find most jasmine tea to be more similar to an oolong in terms of flavor experience, as jasmines often lack the grassiness and astringency that green teas have.)

Basically, jasmine teas begin with green or white tea leaves. These are strewn with night-blooming jasmine flowers and left alone for a bit. Because tea is very susceptible to sucking up fragrance (which incidentally is why you should not store it in the fridge), the jasmine flowers infuse the leaves with a beautiful flavor. Then, the flowers are picked out of the tea and new ones spread over it. For a really fine jasmine tea, this can be done over twelve days with seven separate batches of flowers. The result is what's called a "scented" tea, meaning that the tea itself is infused - as opposed to a tea blend that has actual pieces of fruit or flowers left in it, which would be a "flavored" tea. Price points of jasmine range from "highly affordable" to "clobber you over the head and pick your pocket expensive," mainly based on how good the grade of tea was to begin with and how many jasmine infusions it's undergone.

Because I have kind of a biased palette when it comes to jasmine tea (i.e. "it's awesome! All of it is awesome!") I enlisted the help of my partner, Patrick, and my mother Frances for this taste test. I selected four teas - leaving out the most expensive type of pearls, but picking a higher-range pearl, two middling-range greens and a very nicely affordable green with flowers. All four are from Upton Tea Imports, my personal favorite mail-order source for tea and the reason it's possible to have a different kind of jasmine tea every night for a month or so.


The first tea, and the most expensive of the batch, was Jasmine Pearls from Guangdong Province. These aren't the famous Dragon Phoenix, but they are from the same province and extremely similar, taste-wise, while still a savings of about $10 per 250 grams. (A sample will run you about $3.50.) These guys are the finest preparation of jasmine tea, ever. The whole leaves and buds are hand-rolled into tiny "pearls" after scenting, the same way they've been for the past 900 years. As you infuse the tea, the pearls slowly unfold.

As expected from a costly tea, these have a very light, subtle and beautiful taste. The liquor was substantially lighter than all of the other teas in our jasmine taste test, and the flavor was the most understated - my mom said "From the smell, I expected more jasmine!" The jasmine taste isn't very strong, but it's lovely and floral and not overpowering, letting you taste the quality underlying tea. As we watched the pearls slowly unfold during the infusion time, my mom told me only half-jokingly "That's why they are so expensive, you pay for the show." We tried this tea both hot and iced and it developed a bit of bitterness when cold, but was not unpleasant. Hot, it has no bitterness at all.

The fact is that it's obvious why pearls are the most sought-after type of jasmine tea. If I only had one word to describe the way they taste and smell, it would be "lovely." The tea brewed from these pearls is what I think of when I think of tea - beautiful, soothing and calming. It's difficult for me to even be witty when talking about them, that's how good they are. I'm sure if it came down to the wire, I'd trade a kidney for a cool 250 grams of them.

The goal is for all of us to keep our kidneys, so let's move on to the more affordable jasmines.


This one is a regular-leaf tea, not rolled, with some of the jasmine buds left in the blend for decoration. It's considerably cheaper than the Pearls, $1 for a half-ounce sample.

The first thing we noticed about this one was that the liquor was golden brown and much, much darker than the jasmine pearls. After tasting, however, that wasn't the only difference.

It smelled absolutely fantastic. I don't know how to explain the way the liquor smelled - I wrote on my pad "This is the way tea should smell on a snowy day." I was so enamored of it, I kept huffing my cup. It was just a gorgeous aroma.

Upon tasting, this tea has a nice bitter brightness to it - it's almost coffee-like in that way, you sort of feel like a spoon could stand up in it on its own. It lacks the subtlety of the pearls. However, like the pearls, the jasmine flavor is fairly light, but it's noticeable and pleasant as it adds to the astringent tea flavors but doesn't mask or detract from them. The flavors are less delicate in general.

I like both this one and the pearls for entirely different reasons. This would make a great breakfast tea. It really pops in the mouth, and I felt like the astringency was making my tastebuds stand up and salute. The Pearls might be better for an afternoon or evening tea, but I feel like I'd reach for the less-expensive Flowers first thing in the morning - it seems like a really great tea to banish early morning sock mouth, for one. In fact, this one was my mom's pick for the best morning tea of all four jasmines we tasted.

I thought Flowers would stand up better to being iced, and it does stand up pretty darn well, but ice might make it too bitter for some people. Cooling removed most of the few nuances this tea has to begin with, but it still made a nice, bracing and refreshing cup.

On to the middle-priced selections!


This tea and the next one, Yin Hao, are made by almost the same preparation and are from the same tea family. Chung-Hao, however, is considerably less expensive than Yin-Hao - a sample of Chung-Hao can be had for $1.50, while a sample of Yin-Hao is $2.50. That's why these are the middle-priced selections, coming squarely between the Flowers and the Pearls.

There are really no visible flowers in the Chung-Hao, but that doesn't mean much. (In my experience, any flowers left in the tea are basically for decoration.) The leaves are fairly small and crushed, and they create a very yellow infusion.

Both the leaves and the infusion smelled SUPER jasmine-y. My mom thought this one was "another good breakfast tea!" and everyone agreed that it "felt smooth going down," which I noted as it having a very pleasant mouth-feel. The taste of jasmine was again subtle, although maybe a bit stronger than both of the previous two teas, and the tea itself was delicate and beautiful like Pearls while still having a slightly stronger quality, like the Flowers.

The general consensus was that if you don't want to pay for Pearls, Chung-Hao is a delightfully affordable substitute that should make you very happy. Some might even like it better than Pearls, as it mimics the flavors well while still being a little more intense, which I enjoy. It's lovely.


Again, Yin-Hao is very similar to Chung-Hao, but a bit more expensive - $2.50 the sample. This is the best of the "standard grade" jasmine teas, i.e., the very best of this price range before you move into the Pearls.

The leaves smell extremely floral, and they're dark - quite a bit darker than all of the other jasmines in the taste test today. Upon tasting, I wrote on my pad "All jasmine, all the time!" which for me is an excellent thing - this tea definitely has more of an intense jasmine flavor than all of the others, but it still isn't too much, and doesn't mask or conceal the flavors of the tea. The tea flavor and the floral flavor are perfectly balanced. The aftertaste is exceedingly jasmine-y as well, in a pleasant way.

My notes say "The smell is AWESOME!" I wish I had elaborated, but I didn't, so there you go: the smell was awesome.

This one had a great mouth-feel, unsurprisingly similar to the Chung-Hao. It was strong but very smooth without any hint of bitterness whatsoever.

We put it over ice and it was absolutely gorgeous. It was definitely the clear winner as far as iced tea was concerned, with a lovely vegetal array of flavors and an enticingly sweet aftertaste.

The consensus was that this wasn't very similar in taste to the Pearls or anything except its cousin Chung-Hao, but we actually preferred the balance of flavors in Yin-Hao to the Pearls. Over ice, there really wasn't any comparison between the two - and pricewise, you're looking at a 40%-50% decrease at higher volumes of purchase.


Nothing, alas, will stand up adequately to Pearls, and that is for a reason. They are an art form of tea, the ultimate in jasmine perfection. But if you really like jasmine and don't want to spend lots of money, there are plenty of opportunities for you. Even the cheapest of the teas we sampled was delicious and had its own notable features, and these are by no means all of the affordable jasmines that are available out there.

* If you like the taste of Pearls but don't want to pay for them, try the Chung-Hao Special Grade.
* If you like a stronger jasmine flavor, pick up Yin-Hao Special Grade.
* If you want iced jasmine tea, pick up Yin-Hao Special Grade.
* For a nice morning green tea, try Jasmine with Flowers or the Chung-Hao Special Grade.

Notes: I'm not going to give these leaf ratings because I liked them all for totally different reasons, so it would be entirely arbitrary. I will, however, encourage you to try all of them, and tell you that I know Yin-Hao is going to be the one I reorder most often.

On a final note, this post is in memory of my little cat, Jasmine, who had to leave to go to Kitty Heaven a few weeks ago at the ripe old age of 16. I love you and miss you, kitty.

The Teaist Returns

Well, I'm back.

See, I stopped blogging because I graduated, and it kind of crushed my soul not to be in school. But, having recently entered the wonderful world of graduate education, I'm ready to begin again. And I'm drinking about a dozen cups of tea a day here in Boston, a city with a rich and wonderful history of tea-related hilarity.

Here's what's going to happen in the upcoming couple of weeks:

* a review of four loose jasmines from Upton
* a weird matcha thing I found at the local Asian market
* ways to brew, prepare and carry your tea on the go
* Adagio's amber sugar crystals
* and a first: a service review of Teavana.

So! Buckle up and have a cuppa.

31 August 2007

Bar Harbor Tea Company: Mango Green

Ohmygod. Smell this. Go on, just stare at the screen as hard as you can and imagine smelling the best thing in the world. Imagine smelling the air right after a magical mango fairy flies by. Imagine smelling Zeus, as he's lounging back on Mount Olympus and sipping mango nectar. Mmmm, Zeus.

I am rashly prepared to award this tea five leaves without even having brewed any, because it smells so amazing. If the infusion tastes even a quarter of how delightful it smells in the tin, I'll be thrilled. Even if it sucks, I'm going to buy more just to smell.

So, I acquired this at a tiny, brightly-lit and sparkling new shop in Bar Harbor, Maine. The shop has only been there for a matter of weeks, but all of the blends I smelled were truly delightful and I carefully carried home a sack of the most unique ones I could find, mostly fall-themed, with which I will entertain you in the following weeks. On to the mango!

As you can sort of see in the picture, there are flowers in the mix (although what type of flowers they might be eludes me, they're orange) and the little delicious mango nuggets are rather moist, very fresh. Did I mention it smells like the angel of mangos? The brewed liquor (which I made an entire pot of, in anticipation) is darker than most greens, beautifully clear, and retains a strong fruity aroma.

First sip: oh. Oh my. Even without the mango, the green tea flavor in this is awesome, deep, complex, grassy in a good way. You can really taste the mango but it's not so overwhelming that the tea flavors fall away into the background. Absolutely beautiful blend - unfortunately, it's fairly unusual to find one that's balanced this well, many fruit teas either go overboard or underboard on the fruit flavor. This is perfect.

Bar Harbor Tea Company is a very new shop, and thus they are still developing their web presence. Their webpage, which is currently just a splash page, is here. The owner told me that they expect to have online retail available in a month or so. I highly encourage you to patronize them as the first company to produce a tea with an aroma that made me caper around my apartment in glee, and I'll be reviewing several of their autumn blends in the coming weeks.

Notes: Probably the best fruit tea I've ever tried, high-quality, affordable and delicious. I can't wait until the online store goes up, and you'll see a notification on the blog when that happens.

24 July 2007

The Republic of Tea: Blackberry Sage

Did you ever think "Mmm-mm, boy, I wish I had some cough syrup emulsified in a a bottle of water, so that I could get the delicious taste of Dimetapp or Robitussin while still quenching my thirst?"

No? This one probably isn't for you, then.

I've always been fond of the plastic bottles Republic of Tea uses, even though the pleasantly Taj-Mahal-evocative shape is really just to distract you while you don't notice they are robbing you absolutely blind. The bottles are fun to hold, and they're quirkily adorable; I love the way they look in the fridge. And I'm always looking for different unsweetened bottled teas to try out, because the amount of money I give to Ito En could easily beat out the GDP of several African nations, and because I like to try new things.

"Blackberry sage!" I thought enthusiastically, as I picked up the bottle. "Well, golly! I love blackberries, and sage always reminds me of when I lived in the desert. Three dollars for twelve ounces? Well, then it must be really good! Yay for trying new things!"

No. My friends, this is not a winner.

The Republic of Tea-produced copy of what this brew is supposed to taste like informs me that I should be experiencing a "slightly minty flavor" of "uncommon quality." As a more corrected opinion of what you will experience, I offer "cough medicine" or possibly "dishwater." The "uncommon quality" they speak of is that it makes you curl up your nose in utter distaste as you're sipping it. The sage is nowhere to be found. As if to give you a final kick in the pants once it makes it over your taste buds, the stuff actually has a very nasty, stinging sensation in the throat as it goes down.

I have a feeling the Republic of Tea and I will do battle again ("battle" meaning "they knock me down and rob me blind for twelve ounces of their crappy, pretentious little brew.") With such delightful flavors as "Pink Lemonade Green Tea" and "Kiwi Pear Decaf White Tea," I fear this will not be our last encounter. No, we are not finished here, Republic of Tea. We are not finished here.


Notes: Yuck. This is the first RoT (heh) pre-brewed blend I have tried, but for $3 for 12 dinky little ounces, it would need to be about 500% more spectacular than it is.

Tune in! A few days from now we're having a Bottled Jasmine Cage Match: Adagio v. Ito En.

22 June 2007

Teavana: Rooibos Sweet Amore

I think this is the prettiest tea I've ever seen, which is a little sad because it isn't actually tea. It's rooibos, or "red bush tea," which is made from a bush that grows in South Africa, and it's much more closely related to peanuts and soybeans than it is to regular tea. Rooibos has been used by the Khoisan people in South Africa for medicinal purposes for hundreds of years, so it's not just the hip new thing in trendy Western tea shops (this I take great delight in explaining to employees of said tea shops). That said, this particular rooibos blend has rosebuds in it. Look at it, just look at it!

Along with the rosebuds, it's also got fetching little dried cubes of orange peel and what looks to me like slivered blanched almonds. It smells rather good, and I bought a little sack of it at Teavana on a whim because I thought it was so beautiful. I'm hardly a fan of rooibos most of the time, but it is exceptionally healthy and free from caffeine, so I will begrudgingly try this one for you.

The liquor produced by the infusion is bright reddish orange and very attractive, clear and good quality. It smells overwhelmingly like rooibos (a somewhat nutty, warm smell) and a huge amount of cinnamon. At the store I wasn't entirely sure was sort of flavor "Rooibos: Sweet Amore" was going to turn out to be, but it would seem this tisane would be more appropriately named "Rooibos: Huge Bushels of Cinnamon." My house smells ... not good, rather like someone was making an apple pie and had a seizure, flinging cinnamon hither and yon.

Thankfully, in drinking it the overwhelming cinnamon stench is really turned down. I can't taste the rosebuds at all, there's no hint of a floral note. There is something of a pleasant orange aftertaste, so I suppose the cubes of orange peel aren't just there for prettiness like the rosebuds. The predominant flavors are rooibos and cinnamon, though.

At first I was rather lukewarm about this infusion, but as I sipped it, it sort of grew on me. It's a calm and unadventurous brew, and would be absolutely perfect for a beginner to rooibos. The cinnamon smell is very strong during brewing, but on drinking it's just right and the orange aftertaste is actually nice. In the end I'm pleased, and will return to it on sleepy fall mornings when I believe it'll be just perfect.

Teavana: Rooibos Sweet Amore


Notes: Boring but pleasant and relaxing. If you like cinnamon and have never had rooibos before, this one is for you. Hold off until cooler weather untl buying it, it's not exactly a summer brew. Would also be appropriate to buy and put in a jar as attractive cinnamon potpourri, if you're weird.

11 June 2007

Rishi 100% Premium Tealeaf Powder: Sencha

Meet Rishi 100% Premium Tealeaf Powder.

So a few weeks ago, on something of a whim, I picked this up in my grocer's tea section. I'm not going to lie to you: I picked it up expressly thinking to myself, "This looks to be amazingly awful and I will mock it to my heart's content on The Teaist."

Bzzzt. Wrong. Alas, I was a fool to base my entire assumption on the color of the beverage on the front of the box. I have been cheated out of my opportunity to be witty, because this foul, swampy-looking green powder is truly a miracle and I cannot seem to cease singing its praises nor buying it in large quantities.

Essentially, Rishi has recognized a problem I'm sure lots of us have - tea is wonderful, but worthwhile unsweetened bottled teas are very difficult to come by in convenience stores while one is out and about. Also, there are no doubt many people like myself who have been late for class dozens of times running out the door carrying a dangerously steaming Thermos of boiling water because they need tea to survive biological anthropology. You get the picture.

This product is very finely crushed up tea leaves. That's all it is. It is nothing like iced tea powder, which dissolves completely in water and is tooth-rottingly sweet. Rishi Tealeaf Powder is only a tiny single-serving envelope full of (surprise) tea leaf powder and when you dump it into 16 ounces of water, it forms a strangely colored but fantastic tasting unsweet green tea - immediately. You dump it into a bottle of water, shake it up, and it turns into an oddly opaque green emulsion of tea wonderment. It isn't lumpy or unpleasantly textured as I was expecting. It tastes grassy, refreshing, full-flavored and delicious, exactly like a sencha ought to.

The best way I can describe it is that it tastes very like a cold version of the milled tea powder that is prepared in the Japanese tea ceremony, only made by wizards.

I love it. On their website, Rishi even provides a handy-dandy diagram of how to make it:

Rishi 100% Premium Tealeaf Powder: Sencha


Notes: Don't be put off by the weird color. It makes real green tea in a couple of seconds, no boiling water involved - I don't know anything else that can make that claim. You get more of the nutritional benefits of tea since you're ingesting the entire milled leaf. The powder is good to put in smoothies and you can use it to make ice cream. Along with the sencha, it also comes in genmai and oolong. And it's only $8 for a pack of 12 - I can't remember the last time I spent a more worthy $8. I'm buying more to take on the 10-hour car ride I'll be going on to see the Smashing Pumpkins in two weeks. This stuff is gold.