What About Tea?

I was on a trip last week.  My sense of smell was frustratingly wonky (plane travel? allergies? who knows) which I dealt with by ignoring it, mostly.  But I also tried sniffing some new, different things, on the theory that I’m still trying to get my nose back into shape.

So I went into a fancy tea shop and spent two hours smelling pretty much every single one of their teas.  It was a quiet, spacious place. I told the owner she could ignore me with impunity and I’d let her know if I needed anything.  It was a great setup.  The teas were sorted (green, black, herbal, etc.) and there was a jar for each of them, sort of like a spice jar, with a cap and holes in the top, so you could smell them all you wanted to.

It was wild.  I’m not a fancy tea drinker, really, although I’m aware there’s a solid (and unsurprising) overlap between perfume lovers and tea lovers.  Both perfume and tea are, at their best, sensory delights. I think the thing that surprised me most (or that I appreciated the most?) is how fresh they were, although I’m not sure that’s the word I’m looking for.  Not gonna lie, my idea of luxury tea is some bags of Bigelow from the top shelf of Whole Foods.  Specialty loose teas from a shop that sells nothing but tea is a whole different level, you know?

I’d like to get into tea, just a little bit.  I’m not sure where the hurdle is.  It’s not the cost, and I think it’s pretty evident I don’t let my own massive ignorance get in the way of my enthusiasm, yeah? I should probably just pick somewhere (anywhere!) and start. I admit I find the level of detail a little nerve-wracking (exactly x amount of tea leaves submerged for precisely y seconds in water heated to z degrees, no more no less blah blah).  On the other hand, it’s not meth I’d be making, or C-4.  It’s not going to explode in my face if I get something wrong.

Is there, like, a loose tea sampler? Should I stick to one genre at a time, like oolong? Or can I just slut around? What about herbal, do you even consider that tea?   Should I just get two or three teas, based on the smell and description (I made notes at the tea shop) and a strainer and start there?  Maybe a dark tea, an oolong and a pu-erh? I like all of those, in a general sense. (Green and matcha, not so much, at least not yet.)  The idea that I’d buy something I end up not liking is kind of a bummer, although I’ve certainly done so with perfume blind buys.

Thoughts?  Advice?

11 Comments

  1. My suggestion is to visit a tea store that brews samples or flights. For black teas, try Darjeeling or Nepali teas (lighter) then orange pekoe (OP) or broken orange pekoe (BOP) which are more robust breakfast style teas. My favorite OP is from Sri Lanka.

  2. I agree with Viv, Nepali & Darjeeling are lighter black teas, easy to like. I personally like a strong black cup of Assam or a really good Ceylon. I don’t go for green, white or fruity teas. My caffeine-free tea of choice is red rooibos tea. That I don’t mind with a bit of fruit or vanilla. You can order a bunch of inexpensive samples from Harney or Upton teas to get started if your local shops don’t offer them. I hate getting stuck with a whole bag of tea I don’t like (many shops have a 100g minimum purchase per tea).

  3. A couple of years ago, I found a lovely tea store in Halifax, when I visited there. It was revelatory, smelling so many wonderful teas and blends. I tend to stick to a few types–Irish Breakfast from Red Rose for everyday tea. I have occasionally ordered from the folks at MountainRoseHerbs.com. They have teas, herbs and other very interesting products; no affiliation on my part–just a repeat, satisfied customer.

  4. There are some good samplers at Harney & Sons (harney.com). I am generally all about the caffeine in my tea. My favorite plain black tea genre is Chinese, the Queen Catherine blend and Hao Ya B. For flavored teas, you can’t beat their Holiday tea (available all year, thank goodness) and Cinnamon Orange spice tea. You can buy tea filter bags from them to make your own tea bag. The large ones are perfect for a 4-6 cup pot. Good luck!

  5. I’m an even bigger tea addict than a perfume addict and have drunk high end teas for more years than I care to remember. Palais des Thés sells sampler sets which might be a nice place to start. Also many other ‘serious’ online teashops tend to sell samples. Which makes sense since those teas can be quite expensive.
    I know Robin (NST) buys from Upton and I think TenRen. I’m not familiar with any US e-tailers myself as I live in Europe.

  6. ooh! TenRen! Austenfan, you triggered a longtime memory, there! Decades ago, when Old Town (Chicago) was still a delightful jumble of shops, there was a dedicated TenRen store (or it might’ve been our tiny Chinatown. Lawdamussy, I forget! – ooh! it was Chinatown. Dang. it’s now permanently closed). Anyhoo, I am not a huge tea fan but loved going in there and sampling/sniffing their teas!

    Also, there used to be a great little teahouse in West Hollywood (started with a ‘C’, I think). Don’t remember any of the teas, alas, but the teahouse vibe was marvelous!

    xoxoxo

  7. David’s Tea (maybe only in Canada? but on line too) offers samplers of loose tea.

  8. Fortnum & Mason sells some of nicest tea in a box. Some can be found on Amazon, but others, including several samplers can be found at Williams Sonoma (online for the best selection!)

    I liked Teavana , but for the price, it wasn’t THAT good.

    I fell in love with the blend served at the Fairmont Empress Hotel. It’s a sturdy mix, with a bit of floral, and is best with milk or cream.

    Speaking of tea, I’ve yet to find a tea fragrance that impresses me. I’ve tried many upscale and moderately priced ones and they are all less tea and more other notes.

    I imagine your time sniffing teas was quite pleasant. Now how to pick just two or three! I really do like Fortnum and Mason. The quality is evident and they do have a sampler

  9. Ooh, I love tea! So much so, that I blend my own black tea from about seven different verities, changing it up to reflect the season and my mood at the time. I buy a lot of tea from this company: https://theteaspot.com. They have some nice sampler sets (both loose tea and sachets) that could be a nice place to start. Happy sipping!

  10. Everyone here has good advice. There is nothing much I can add, except something about green tea and matcha. Quick story: My daughter tried some MSM powder mixed with water and said it was horrifically bitter. Some say it’s doable. I said that I tasted nothing. She then ordered taste test strips Turns out I cannot taste bitter at all – a genetic thing. So I checked out bitter foods and……green tea and matcha, made from green tea, are bitter for many people.That may ruin it for you.

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