What tea should I try if I like a normal black tea?

I’ve ran into this situation a lot of times: most people just like their ‘normal’ cup of tea. Of course, everyone has a slightly different ‘normal’ especially when it comes to the amount of milk added. But generally, a ‘normal’ cup is an English Breakfast – a strong tea that you can personalise with milk and sugar (or not add any at all).

Yet sometimes, you can be forced into a situation where you’ll have to pick a different tea. Maybe they’re out of English Breakfast in the restaurant. Or maybe you’re visiting someone else’s office for a meeting and they show you their tea box full of options to choose from. And you get stuck.

No need for panic attacks, I’m here to help you out of a sticky situation. I’ve suggested some teas that will give you the same satisfaction based on what you love in your cuppa.

Teas that are similar in strength

Some teas have a strong body. You know when you add milk and it tastes good and it turns the perfect colour? Not grey, not white either? That’s a strong tea. If that’s what you like, I recommend you try anything labelled:

Assam (second flush if you have the choice)

Tippy Assam
Picture from Whittard’s tea collection. You can buy the tea here.

Keemun – well-regarded and flavoursome Chinese black tea

Lapsang Souchong – very smoky aroma (you can’t miss it, it’s a bit like a bonfire smell) but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea

Lapsang Souchong
Image from Seven Cups – online seller of Chinese teas

If you’re after that dark, malty taste of tea

Darjeeling – light black tea referred to by many as the “champagne of teas”

darjeeling fortnums
Image from Fortnum & Mason where you can buy it, and even find some from a single origin (called single estate).

Yunnan – light Chinese black tea with a beautiful dark golden liquor

yunnan-gold_infusion_gallery
The picture of this beautiful Yunnan is from JING Tea. The golden loose leaves look great too!

Russian Caravan – a slightly smoky black tea blend, though the ‘bonfire’ is not as potent as it is for Lapsang

Earl Grey – a light blend of black tea with bergamot (another one which divides people)

For the caffeine kick

Any of the teas above will give you caffeine, but if you really want to buzz with energy, I recommend trying something different from black tea.

A darker Oolong will be the easiest choice without stepping out of your comfort zone. Something like Dong Ding Oolong or the Iron Goddess of Mercy (how do they come up with these names? Haha!) should do the trick.

iron-goddess-of-mercy
Image from the Tea Palace where you can get this tea at a good price.

Alternatively, white tea has the most amount of caffeine because it’s the least processed, but it’s also the most delicate in flavour which means some of you will find it bland.

If you like mint, try the unique combination of a fresh taste with caffeine in Morrocan Mint – a combination of Gunpowder and spearmint.

moroccan mint fortnums
Image from Fortnum & Mason’s Moroccan Mint product page. Notice the tightly rolled green tea against the mint leaves!

There’s no need to be stressed anymore when faced with a choice other than your ‘usual’. Or perhaps you’ve been inspired to try something new? Either way, let me know how it goes.

Until next time,

Anca

 

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The best teas for when it’s cold outside

My ears and hands felt cold this morning as I waited for the bus to get to work. So, it’s official: autumn is here. Goodbye ice teas, PIMMS and picnics and hello cosy blankets, fireplaces and a warm cup of tea. Of course, the weather never stops us having our favourite cuppa no matter the temperature, but there is something comforting and almost magical in warming your body and hands with a tea. 

As the pumpkin spice and gingerbread lattes show up in coffee shops, tea drinkers also have some seasonal choices to be delighted about, which I want to explore. Not only are they natural and sugar-free by default (unlike those flavoured syrups in coffee) but they are also good for you. 

Chai – warming spices

A traditional Indian drink, chai is usually black tea with spices like cinnamon, cardamom and cloves mixed with warm milk. It’s up to personal preference how milky you make it, but it has to be more than a splash! Similar to a latte, you’d put quite a bit of milk in it. In India, they also use some sort of sweetener, like sugar, to bring out the spices but I think that is up to drinker. I hate any sugar in my tea, so I wouldn’t add it. 

Chai tea
Chai tea from M&S

While black tea is traditionally used in chai, I absolutely love a green chai! Whittard sell a blend called Shanghai Chai and as soon as the cold weather is settled I probably have it at least 3-4 times per week. I find the spices complement the smoothness of a Chinese green tea, whereas with black tea they work to get rid of the astringency and elevate the brew. 

Green chai
Green chai tea from Whittard

Lemon and ginger

Many people regard lemon and ginger tea as something to drink when you have a cold, but who is to say you can’t use it to warm you up too? A naturally caffeine-free brew, lemon and ginger tea is perfect for when you come back from work in the evening and you want to warm up after the journey, or if you fancy taking a cup of tea to bed! I drink quite a bit of tea at my desk at work so I use it in between my caffeinated cups to prevent me from becoming a jitterbug!

Lemon and ginger tea
Lemon and ginger tea from M&S

You can find lemon and ginger teabags in any supermarket and, as they don’t contain tea leaves, I find it acceptable to have it from a teabag. However, you can also try the real deal by slicing some ginger and lemons and pouring hot water on top! Just make sure to brew it for longer as you’re using large fresh pieces so the water doesn’t infuse as fast. I’d recommend 5-10 minutes depending on how much ginger fire floats your boat.

Milk Oolong – buttery popcorn

This is one of my all time favourite tea and I couldn’t miss it from this list. If the feeling of a hug would have to be reproduced in a drink, it would be Milk Oolong. The name, and butteriness, come from the fact that the tea leaves are traditionally steeped in milk during the manufacturing process, before they are dried and rolled. Although some tea producers add milk flavouring to the tea, so you’ll have to check the label before buying. 

Oolong is a type of tea originating in Taiwan and, depending on the way the leaves are processed, is on a scale between black and green tea. Some are more like black teas, some are more like green. Milk Oolong is definitely a greener Oolong and you can read the full brewing notes here. 

Milk Oolong
Milk Oolong tea

Of course, nothing will be able to replace your favourite cup of tea for that comforting feeling of warming up from the cold, but I hope I’ve given you some seasonal ideas to experiment with. Who says coffee drinkers should have all the fun when it comes to the cold season?

Until next time, 

Anca 

Tea review: Hotel Chocolat’s Unwind blend

I have a rather special choice of tea for you this week! Instead of a product from any of the well-known tea merchants, I’ve chosen Hotel Chocolat’s Unwind blend. They’re calling their tea products teaolat, but I’m not entirely sure if the name will catch on so a ‘blend’ is a fit description.


Unlike before, when I’ve suggested some of my favourite teas, I’ve never actually tried this one so I’m going on a journey of discovery with you, my readers.

Dry leaves: as it’s not a blend of tea with actual tea leaves, the dry mix is a combination of cacao nibs, chamomile flowers and lemon balm leaves (no, I didn’t know that was a plant either, it’s part of mint family). The aroma is, as you might expect, chocolaty and rich, with a hint of sweetness coming from the chamomile, but the mint doesn’t come through.


Water temperature: 100 degrees Celsius

Amount: one teabag (3.5g)

Brewing time: 4-5 minutes.

Wet leaves: brewing the tea seems to strip the leaves of any sweet aroma, focusing instead on the bitterness of cocoa (not chocolate), with dried fruit and tobacco notes.


Brew: the resulting tea is light bodied, but a bit astringent. The flavour is a combination of dried fruits with burnt notes so the cocoa transfers that way and it leaves quite a similar aftertaste to that of light black teas, just without the malty flavour. I personally liked the combination although I didn’t find it particularly unwinding, but I think it will be a divisive blend in terms of taste. Some will like it, and some won’t.

hotel chocolate unwin teaolat itea

Ready to try it?

You’ll be able to find it in most Hotel Chocolat stores and in their online shop, along with some other flavours. I purchased a single teabag as an impulse buy (sorry, my dear husband, I’ll never be able to resist tea!) from the till area. And I suggest you do that too, just to see if you like it. But you can also buy them as a pack of 10 pyramid teabags for £5 (at the time of writing) or already infused for on-the-go enjoyment.

If you’re looking for a novel gift idea for a tea lover friend or family member, give Hotel Chocolat’s teaolats a go! I think they will be quite surprised.

Thanks for reading!

Anca

My tea has the word ‘flush’ on the label. What is it?

I’m on a mission to help everyone who is passionate about tea discover what they are really drinking. And why not, try something new along the way! Last week, we looked at what English Breakfast is made of – the magic trio of Assam, Kenyan and Ceylon. Now, I want to talk to you about flushes, or at least introduce you to them. You might not see them on your regular pack of tea, but if you’ve regularly bought tea presents for friends and family, or visit the speciality stores, you’re bound to have come across the term.

The plucking process

As you may remember, the plucking process generally involves the bud (first leaf, still not completely unfurled) and the two leaves immediately underneath it. In the case of special teas like Silver Needle, it’s only the bud that is taken. 

The tea bush will continue growing throughout the year so tea pluckers can come back to take the top three leaves again and again. When winter comes, the tea bush will go to sleep and come back to life again in the spring. If you think of us humans for a minute, we keep doing things all day before going to sleep every night, but we are at the top of our game in the morning (most of us anyway!). Tea is the same – it will keep regenerating throughout the year but it’s that first spring harvest that is said to be the most concentrated in goodness and also the most delicate.

Ok, ok, so what are flushes you ask? Well instead of calling them seasons, in the tea world, different crops are called flushes. So the first flush is in the spring (March time), the second flush is in the summer (May and after) and the third flush is during early autumn (August – September).

Why flushes matter…

As I said above, the level of flavour and body that go into the leaves will be highly influenced by the type of flush. The first flush has a more concentrated flavour but a delicate, light body, whereas the second flush has a more distinct body. That’s why first flush Darjeeling (a light afternoon black tea) is considered the champagne of tea as a delicate body is desirable, whereas a second flush Assam is preferred to the first flush because it has a stronger body associated with a good Assam.

Single estate teas

Most commercial tea is mixed from different crops and from batches from around the world, so the flushes really matter only for single estate teas, a bit like single malt whisky. The name of the estate will sometimes be included in the name of the tea especially with historic estates, Margaret’s Hope First Flush Darjeeling is one example. 

Buying tea from one estate will help you identify the difference that the climate makes over time and season by season. However, as a standalone purchase or drink in a tea room, I have difficulty tasting the difference between single estate teas and blends. I assume it’s the continuity that makes the difference in taste. 

Which reminds me … time to put the kettle on!

Anca 

What’s in an English Breakfast tea?

When I used to work for Whittard, many years ago, the store was always buzzing with tourists looking to bring the delights of Britain back to their countries. It also helped that I live in the beautiful and historical Cotswold area, with the spires and colleges of Oxford attracting those who want to visit the top-ranked university in Britain and among the oldest in the world.

Of course, tea plays a major part in tourist retail along with magnets and flags and other paraphernalia, but what says ‘I’ve been to England’ better than a box of English Breakfast? And it’s not just the name of the tea that has its appeal, English Breakfast is also the drink of choice for the natives – whether it’s called that or ‘everyday tea’ or under the respective brand names like PG Tips, Yorkshire Tea, etc. It’s all the same blend and it definitely doesn’t grow in Yorkshire!

A recipe with different ingredients

You see, what many people don’t realise is that while we all have our favourite brand and type of tea we prefer, producing that flavour every time is not quite as easy as making cake. You don’t just add the same ingredients in the same order and quantities and get the same result every time. And that’s because the ingredients are never the same.

If any of you are budding or keen gardeners, you’ll know that you can’t guarantee a plant to yield the exact same crop every year. That’s true for tea as well. The climate, rainfall, soil, general weather conditions and time of picking affect the taste of the leaves to a great extent. Through processing after plucking, you can still control what type of tea you obtain but a lot of factors are out of your control as a tea producer.

Tea blending – a craft like no other

What happens is that every company will have a taste they are aiming to achieve. They have a rough idea of the ‘ingredients’ that should go in, called a ‘blend’ in the tea world. For English Breakfast tea, that blend is generally a mix of Assam, Kenyan and Ceylon teas, but the exact proportions will vary with each company. The reason why these teas have been chosen to create such a popular and delicious blend are:

  1. Assam for strength – giving us the kick of caffeine with a strong body we crave in the morning
  2. Kenyan for colour – that dark golden brown which gets us out of bed
  3. Ceylon for flavour – that’s not to say that the other teas don’t taste nice but Ceylon, a tea from Sri Lanka, has a really special flavour among the black teas

As each batch of leaves that is bought is different, master blenders in each company will then make many variations of the same recipe with modified quantities of these three teas to match the previous batch they had made. Which was made to match the one before, and so on, to obtain a consistent taste. Master blenders will make even as many as 50 different blends, so you can imagine they have quite a sophisticated pallete to be able to differentiate each one.

All to bring us the comforting taste of our favourite cuppa.

Not all people want that though, much like wine, some tea drinkers prefer to taste the differences in seasonality and yields year after year much like with wine. But to do that, you need to drink single estate teas, which I will talk about in my next post.

Time to put the kettle on,

Anca

How did tea come to England?

I found out today that not only is tea loved everywhere in the world, it’s the second most consumed beverage after water! Which made me think: how exactly did we come to like it so much in England?

As with any story of foreign products which became popular, tea was originally the privilege of the rich and royal. Apparently, the first time tea was offered in London was around 1660. But before you start dreaming of your usual cup of black tea made with just the right amount of milk, you must know it was actually Chinese green tea which Londoners would have tried first. And since it was served in public coffee houses, it would have only been men who drank it as women would only socialise in the confines of their homes at the time.

However, tea was also a favourite of Princess Catherine of Braganza, the wife of Charles II, who made it popular amongst the ladies at court, which consequently made the drink more popular and more desirable with everyone. At this point in time though, tea was mostly viewed as a medicinal drink believed to cure many problems including asthma! It was not until sugar was added, which also happened to be the luxury of the rich, that tea became more widely drank for pleasure than medicine and black tea overtook green tea as the favourite.

Catherine of Braganza
Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II (Image from History of Royal Women)

As import prices dropped, tea become more accessible to middle classes and, fuelled by the aspiration to mimic the wealthy, led to the consumption of tea as an established ritual which came with its own set of manners and traditions, much like the one related to afternoon tea.

An early James Bond – Robert Fortune

Before we go too far ahead into tea’s history, I need to tell you about a man that we owe our outmost gratitude to: Robert Fortune. You see, at the beginning all the tea imported into England came from China on Tea Clippers (more below). China kept the secret of their precious beverage under strict control including where and how it was grown and processed to be able to leverage it for export. The British had many attempts of uncovering the secret in order to replicate it on their own territories instead of paying the high Chinese taxes, but it remained closely guarded. One strategy was even to get the Chinese addicted to opium – but that’s a story for another time.

The best plan, in the end, was to train a spy with a classified mission. This top secret James Bond was called Robert Fortune and he was actually a botanist. He went to great lengths to find out how the Chinese produced the much desired tea leaves, including disguising himself as a Chinese tea merchant in order to travel on one of the boats that had access to the tea plantations high in the mountains. His diaries and explorations are fascinating and they shed a lot of light on tea production that was unknown at the time. One such fact is that all tea comes from one plant, contrary to the popular belief that green and black tea leaves came from different varieties.

Robert eventually managed to collect some seeds to take back to India (a colony of the British Empire at the time), where he was surprised to discover a relative of camellia sinensis – the camellia assamica variety.

The most famous Victorian ship of all: The Clipper

It wouldn’t be a complete story of how the English fell in love with tea without talking about Tea Clippers. Developed in the 19th century, clippers were the fastest sailing ships of their time and their image is probably the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions a ship from that period.

tea clipper
Image from Tea.co.uk

As they were constructed for speed, not capacity, they couldn’t carry large amounts of tea but they could reach 30 km/h – a speed which still hasn’t been beaten by modern commercial sail vessels. Not that we use sail vessels commercially that much anymore! But it meant they could bring tea more often, which made it fresher.

If you’re interested to see one of these beautiful vessels, you can visit the Cutty Sark in Greenwich, now kept in dry dock. It’s really impressive!

The interesting story of Gunpowder

Finally, I’d like to share the story of one of my favourite teas: Zhu Cha, which means Pearl Tea. This was one of the first teas ever imported into Britain. You have to remember that the only other way the English would have seen loose tea is as what we think of it today: varied sizes of dried leaves. As the name suggests, Zhu Cha is tightly rolled into little balls or pearls, but they are so small and so tight that they resemble gunpowder pellets – giving it its Western name. Contrary to what you might think, I find Gunpowder a very smooth and mellow green tea in comparison to the earthy Japanese Sencha. The Chinese aren’t great fans of it so most of the production is used in the Moroccan Mint blend which many of you might be familiar with. I’ll review it for you soon!

If you found this article interesting and you want to know more, rest assured that I’ve only just scratched the surface in England’s history with tea. There is plenty more to discover and if there is something you’d really like to know, just leave it in a comment below.

Until next time,

Anca

Tea review: Fortnum & Mason’s Afternoon Blend

In honour of Afternoon Tea this week, I’ve decided to review a classic choice for this joyous occasion: the eponymous Afternoon Blend. Many tea merchants will have a variant of this, including Whittard and Twinings, but I have chosen Fortnum & Mason’s blend as it was recently given to me as gift and I like to call Fortnum & Mason The Mothership so I’m probably a bit biased.

If you’re looking for an easy choice to go with your Afternoon Tea this week, or simply need a pick-me-up without the heavy body and strength of a regular English Breakfast, this is your tea. And while you’re at it, why not read more about the Afternoon Tea tradition?

Dry leaves: the aromas of the leaves have that characteristically strong earthy smell of a black tea, with notes of dried tobacco on this particular blend. As with many black teas for general consumption (as opposed to the grand crus and single estate varieties), the leaves are cut quite small to produce a full-bodied liquor.

IMG_2236

Water temperature: 100 degrees Celsius

Amount: one teaspoon or 3-4 grams per cup

Brewing time: 3-5 minutes. It might sound like a lot if you normally use teabags, but this time will give the tea leaves the chance to absorb the water and infuse it.

Wet leaves: the infusion process reveals a much lighter aroma to the leaves, which are now light woody, a bit like balsa wood, rather than earthy. The leaves have now also expanded and you can notice their size a bit better, which is the sign of a good quality loose leaf tea.

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Brew: those adverse to change will be happy to know that the tea tastes a bit like your regular cuppa without the strength, which is why I would suggest not adding milk to it because it won’t hold the taste very well. It’s mouth-filing but smooth, making it a good match and a versatile companion to the sweetness and variety of afternoon tea cakes.

IMG_2239

Ready to try it?

My best recommendation would be to go to Fortnum & Mason and enjoy their full Afternoon Tea package. Don’t worry, I’m in no way paid by them to say that, it’s simply the nicest Afternoon Tea I’ve ever had so it comes from the heart.

However, you can always buy the Afternoon Tea blend that I reviewed, priced at £10.95 for a lovely tin and 250g of tea (or about 80 cups!), bake a fresh batch of Mary Berry’s scones and enjoy a cream tea at home with cream and jam.

Thanks for reading!