After my August sorbet adventures I wanted to learn more about tea. I decided to start at the Tea Embassy. It’s my favorite kind of shop — small, specialized, and run by people fiercely devoted to their product. From the street the Embassy’s historical bungalow looks like a place ladies in hats might gather for an afternoon of vicious gossip and Earl Grey, but inside there’s dark wood and a wall full of silver canisters. (Tea, like wine and perfume, should be stored away from light, heat and humidity.) The Embassy’s excellent website — which includes an online shop — promised a “palate profile” to help me select my perfect tea from among the 200 they offer.
When I arrived, the natty young man behind the counter introduced himself as Tim. “We’re still working on a formal version of the profile,” he said, “but let me ask you a few questions.”
We talked for the next two-and-half hours. Some of the questions he asked me were about flavor, but many were about mood and context, or just the kind of person I was. Did I like to wake up gently, or with a jolt of energy? When my friends came to town, where did I take them out to dinner?
To pick the right tea, I had to think about what I wanted the tea to do and when I was going to drink it. That made sense to me — I pick the perfumes I’m going to wear much the same way — and it made me remember how bound up in ceremony and ritual tea is, even the simplest ritual of waiting for water to boil and leaves to steep.
As we talked, we sniffed. I skipped all the scented/flavored teas and stuck to representative green, black, oolong, and white tea. My goal was to learn about the variety of flavors in the leaf itself. This, I learned from Tim, is primarily about how the leaves are treated after they’re picked, particularly the method and degree of oxidization. Steamed or pan fried? Rolled to bruise the leaves and release their oils, or delicately handled to preserve their light fur? There are as many subtle variations in method as there are myriad flavors.
We began with a couple of Japanese green teas. Kabuse No. 1 Sencha, tea from the first harvest in May, looked and smelled a bright, grassy, lemony springtime green. Kabuse No. 3, the third picking, was woodier, and sweeter but still very green. Tim told me the teas were grown under bamboo nets to mimic the shade of the forest, a technique that spikes the chlorophyll in the plant. The leaves are then steamed to retain the clean brightness prized in Japan.
Since I preferred the woody notes of Kabuse No. 3 — my general asethetic is far more Mediterranean than Japanese — we moved on to Dream Mountain Clouds and Mist, a Chinese Green that had a floral scent, and deep caramel, almost chocolaty notes, the result of a “pan frying” (dry roasting on a flat metal surface — there’s no fry oil involved) as opposed to steaming the leaves.
From there we went darker still, to a classic black breakfast teas from Assam, India. The first smelt wonderfully of sap and balsam. Tim told me it was astringent when brewed, with that roof-of-the-mouth dryness I associate with highly tannic wines. He much preferred the smoothness of Keemun black teas. I smelled two: Breakfast Treasure, which had deep smoke and malty notes, and Guangxi Hao Ya A Premium, which was recognizably the same tea — just as complex, but lighter on the malt and much smoother overall.
Both seemed very light next to the Embassy’s version of Lapsang Souchong — a blast of smoke and cold air, as though I were by a campfire at night in the mountains. Lapsang Souchong is essentially inferior tea that’s been smoked, but it’s distinctive flavor is legendary. Bob, another Embassy employee, told me that Churchill enjoyed a cup of Lapsang with a slug of whiskey in it — a nice peaty scotch, I imagine.
After giving my nose a little break to recover from the smoke we went through some oolongs and a few white teas. White teas remain too subtle for my as-yet unrefined tea palate, but I’m eager to try again later. Tim talked about their champagne notes, and silky mouthfeel. Since a Now Smell This reader recommended I try a white jasmine tea, I broke my scented tea rule to sniff Jasmine Silver Needle White, whose leaves had been mixed with jasmine flowers thirteen times with spectacular results — the A La Nuit of tea. Tim told me that white tea leaves absorb the jasmine scent even better than green.
It was the oolongs, a tea somewhere between green and black, that really captured me, particularly one called Oriental Beauty. All of the oolongs had a smooth, floral character, but Oriental Beauty’s was both more pronounced and more complex. It smelled of a wildflower field in the sun — that warm, slightly honeyed sweetness that rises up from an acre of blooms. After I sniffed it, I fell silent for awhile.
“I think I need some of this to take home,” I told Tim. He went into a strange dance behind the counter, stamping his feet, shaking his head, and making odd strangled sounds under his breath.
“Arggghhh!” he said, “Of all the teas I’ve shown you! And we have so many reasonable ones…”
I’d managed to pick out the most expensive tea in the shop — a spendy $22.50 an ounce compared to the multitude of other teas he’d shown me that went for $5.00 and $12.00. I reassured him that the price seemed quite reasonable compared to perfume. I also asked for some of the milder Keemun, Guangxi Hao Ya A Premium, which turned out to be one of Bob’s favorites. He assured me that it is Queen Elizabeth’s favorite morning cup, though she tells the press she drinks English Breakfast.
Neither of my teas disappointed when brewed. The Keemun is strong and malty, but completely smooth, the perfect wake-up drink. Oriental Beauty retains all of it’s flowers, in the cup and in the mouth. It is a ceremony unto itself.
Note: top image is Green tea leaves by Ayelie at flickr; some rights reserved.
I’m a big fan of white tea (my friend and purchase together from upton tea…) and I’m trying Pur-eh, a fermented, block tea…so interesting! But by far my fav. is Oolong Ginseng which I first tried in Chonggqing, China, along with Jasmine Dragon Pearl…The Oolong Ginseng leaves you with the most amazing licorice note!
I have to second you on the Jasmine Dragon Pearl. It is my favourite flavoured tea. So delicate and distinctive. It’s s good go-to when I want a break from the world and its demands.
Me three on the Dragon Pearl. Just perfect for an evening tea. I’m not a tannin fan, so the Silver Needle is another drink of perfection.
Oolong Ginseng sounds heavenly. My current favorite jasmine is a green pearl tea from Rishi–don’t know about the dragon part.
Meant to say as well that Pur-eh is one of Tim’s favorites. It has an incredibly earthy, complex smell. I can see it being sort of an old-fashioned leather chypre of teas.
I’m completely jealous of your experience. How wonderful that you had the opportunity to have a palate profile! I have no idea what I would like….I know what I do like but their website is overwhelming. Thank you for sharing
I’m sure if you called the shop they’d be happy to make some recommendations! Not as satisfying as being there to sniff and chat, but it might lead somewhere interesting.
It sounds like a wonderful idea, but sadly, as noted on the website, they do not ship to Canada
Oh, dang! Hadn’t noticed that. My apologies.
All may not be lost – where are you? I frequent “The tea Emporium here. Try this. http://www.theteaemporium.com/wheretofindteas.html
I think they also have an online shop.
And love the drama of “all may not be lost,” hee!
I just realised the actual store locations are in TO. Link at the top of the site. I may be wrong, but I think I remember more white teas in the store than they have on the site. But if you are not in TO and need to try a few………..I may be able to help.
Thank you for posting that link but I am not in TO but Mtl.
Alyssa- what a great experience! I am usually a coffee drinker, but once in awhile, I do enjoy a good cup of the usual orange pekoe and black pekoe tea. My great babci, who was from Poland was very fond of tea. Are there any other Polish-Americans out there who can say that tea is more popular over in Poland than say, coffee?
It was great. Tim was very generous with his time and knowledge.
Now I’m curious about Polish tea drinking, too…
We (Poles) drink tons of tea. It’s especially nice in cold weather, which there is a lot of here, and good as an alternative to coffee when you don’t want as much caffeine (most people don’t know some teas have more caffeine than coffee…)
The typical question a host asks you when you’re visiting friends is, “Tea or coffee?” My favorite coffee shop has dozens of varieties of tea as well, and there’s a couple nice tea shops (like described in this post) that can be found on Warsaw’s most elegant street
I think tea is more popular for Poles to drink at home, but when they go out (or at work) they’re more likely to drink coffee.
I’ve got four or five different kinds of teas at the moment in my kitchen, several metal tins I’ve liked and kept full of loose tea, and of course an electric kettle. I’d say that’s typical, by our standards.
How interesting, thanks so much for chiming in!
I’ll join Dolly in the envy clubhouse, this sounds like an absolutely heavenly experience! I keep what can only be described as a tea library in the pantry, but I’m always looking to add more. This was fascinating. I always love your posts, Alyssa!
So glad you enjoyed it! I feel grateful to have a place like the Tea Embassy so near by,
What a very fun experience! Love going to tea shops. I have tons of teas. I have to watch my caffeine intake, but do indulge – primarily in green and white teas, but black creeps in now and again. I particularly like a Monkey-Picked tea I have, and a flowered one called Blue Willow. I have an excellent green tea (each leaf is a little ball) combined with Moroccan mint that is a truly delicious blend. I have several Jasmines, and one that is a veritable garden.
$22.50 is expensive by tea standards, but not too pricey to indulge in. for sure, and definitely cheaper than perfume! (as my poor wallet will attest after this weekend!)
Tama, I sniffed two monkey picked teas–Monkey Picked Oolong, and Cheeky Monkey Picked Oolong, whose name makes me laugh. Tim told me the whole story behind the “monkey picked” designation–originally monkeys trained by monks (which sounds like copy from the Prix Eaux Faux) really did pick the tea. The idea was to preserve to spirit of the tea as much as possible. Now it just means “the good stuff.”
The story I heard was that it was easier for the monkeys to get around on the hills the teas were grown on. Your version is more romantic.
Ha! I think your version was incorporated into mine. To be frank, I don’t remember it all, but it definitely had to do with where those particular tea leaves were growing…
However, herbal teas make me nauseous. I have tried all kinds, all brands, organic and non, still the same thing. I absolutely love the smell of your “usual’ tea. Mmm.
Generally other than my fave Jasmine DP, my other top faves are White Needle from Chongqing, and whites from the Fujian province which would also include a Rose scented one. Some teas are to die for!
Thanks for the great article Alyssa. I enjoy reading about your fun little escapades. Always something to discover and enjoy!
So glad you enjoy the articles. Perfume was my first really big “escapade” and it made me want to just keep on exploring and getting surprised!
I fell like brewing some right now!
I haven’t loved a green tea yet; in fact I really rather dislike it. For some reason I find it bitter and this is coming from someone who frequently indulges in espresso. I do love white tea and that’s the tea I’m always drinking.
Ooh, it’s in Austin? That’s close enough that I could plan a day trip, see some friends, then dip into some tea….
Oh you should definitely make a trip!
I found green tea bitter for a long time. Then I discovered I’d been brewing it incorrectly–it prefers water just short of boiling and a shorter steeping time. After that our relationship improved. But the oolongs, I found, were defintely smoother overall. I’m sure the whites are even more so.
I’ve been told that before about green tea but by then I’d given all my green tea away. Might have to hit up a friend. ;D
Sweet! Thanks, Alyssa, I’ve been meaning to check out the Tea Embassy for soooo long. I wonder if they have a tea I’ve been wanting to learn more about. There’s a weird and wonderful tea called Pu-erh that I’ve liked the few times I’ve had the opportunity to buy some. I think of it as the tea for those perfumophiles who like a little weird and skanky in their ‘fumes! It’s fermented and aged, so it’s very earthy and peaty. Some people get kind of a swampy note to it, but I love it!
Aimee, as I commented above, they do indeed have Pu-erh. In fact it’s one of Tim’s favorites. Go!
Alyssa, did you try all these with sugar, or what did they suggest when you were testing?
I’m curious if a couple spoons of sugar thrown into a cup of well-done tea is like spraying on Britney Spears Curious after putting on an elegant cocktail dress
Dominika, I was just “testing” by smell, and by talking to Tim, though the Embassy is always happy to brew up a sample cup. I think your question about sugar probably depends on the tea and who is drinking it. All those British/Irish Assam blends just call out for sugar–and hot milk, too! But I would feel terrible stirring sugar into Oriental Beauty. It is so sweet and subtle on its own, I wouldn’t want to add anything to the experience.
What a great post, Alyssa! And I enjoyed it with a freshly brewed cup of Assam. Off to their website….
That’s great, Rapp. Have fun!
What a lovely read. I was a tea hoarder long before I got into perfume. My favourite Jasmine tea is white. I suppose it is the same as the White Sickle you mention. ( I buy from a French tea supplier who has a shop in Holland).
Did you try any Yunnans? They are black teas but really mild. My favourite is called Yunnan Celeste. I think you would like them as they share their mildness with the oolongs. Was the Oolong you tried a Chinese or a Formosa one? I love a Formosa Oolong called Fancy Oolong Black Dragon. It has this lovely nutty aroma.
Assams are wonderful aren’t they? I prefer them to Ceylons, also used as Breakfast teas. The Assams are robust without being sharp in taste, as some Ceylons can be.
Did you try any Darjeelings?
Thanks again for this post, it’s much appreciated!
Well, let’s see–the Oriental Beauty leaves are grown in Taiwan and are a Bai Hao oolong. Hope that means more to you than it does to me! The other two oolongs I smelled were monkey-picked, which I see they have listed separately from the Formosa, but yes, I believe they were Chinese.
I did not try any Yunnans or Darjeelings, but now I want to do so!
Taiwan was formerly called Formosa, their teas keep the old name ( Like with Ceylon- Sri Lanka). I have never tried any of the monkey picked ones. I know there is a coffeebean that passes the digestive tract of a cat before it is harvested. It’s incredibly expensive, and has never tempted me!
Another lovely white tea is Bergamot flavoured white tea. The one I have is called Earl White Splendour. But that’s just a fancy name put on it by the Dutch retailer. But White Earl Grey is sold by other suppliers as well.
There is a wonderful Formosa Lapsang, which is slightly less smokey than the Chines ones I know but very full bodied all the same. I love drinking Lapsang with any strongly tasting food, or very rich food. It’s also great with full English Breakfast.
If you try a Darjeeling go for a First Flush, very flowery and light. Like a good Alsace white wine.
I am going to google that formosa you tried, I had never heard of it.
Austenfan, thanks for all the tips! The monkey picked teas aren’t actually picked by monkeys anymore (though, supposedly, they once were). It’s just a designation, like “top shelf.”
The coffee beans you’re talking about I believe come through the digestive tract of the civet cat, a weasel-like animal which also produces the perfume material of the same name from glands located around the area where the beans would be returning to the world. So I guess it sort of makes sense that they’d be perfumed and delicious…
Well I couldn’t resist looking up the coffee loving animal. It is called a Luwak, part of the civetcat family, the coffee is called Kopi Luwak. Because the beans pass through the gut the taste of the bean changes. Apparently there are very different procedures to actually harvest the beans. The civet glands do not seem to be part of the adding of the aroma. Just the digestive juices.
It is not the only animal to eat coffeebeans. I though there was some kind of fruit or coffeebean that ” passes through elephants” and is therefore considered to be more of a delicacy.
I prefer tea anyway. But these old habits are quite fascinating.
Thanks for this. I can always count on NST readers to get the goods…
It is interesting though, isn’t it, that the gland secretions and digestive juices of the same animal are involved?
I’ve been buying tea from specialteas.com(not affiliated, of course) for a few years now. They have a huge selection of loose leaf teas, as well as rooibos, fruit blends ,herbal concoctions and decaf teas. They also sell 1/2 oz. samples which allows for all sorts of fun sampling. I love to open a bag of Sweet Lemon with Lemon Peel or Madagascar Vanilla and just inhale those wonderful aromas. Ahhh ….
Oh yes, I meant to mention that Robin (who knows far, far more about tea than I do) did a couple of tea posts awhile back and mentioned several companies that will sell sample amounts of loose teas. Here are the links:
Wonderful article Alyssa!
Tea shops are magical places, almost as much fun as perfume shops :). On my last trip I smelled Lapsang Souchong for the first time, and bought two-ounces–I’ve never tasted anything quite like it;I love the dark, smokey charachter. I’m also a big fan of the Genmaicha (brown rice) tea. Between those two, I could sip away happily forever.
I enjoy Genmaicha as well. Such an interesting combination of the green, grassy Japanese tea and the roasted rice. Plus it just looks so cool.
Just as they are often foodies and boozers, it seems as if perfume nuts are also tea lovers! Enjoyed your post very much – we appear to be tea twins. Oolongs are my favorite, too. (I brew a lot of tea for icing, and oolongs make great iced tea.) I share your pain on having expensive taste, also; I’ve never tried Oriental Beauty (though I’ve heard of it), but my fave indulgence is Milk Oolong (sometimes also called Wuyi or Silk oolong) or Barley Oolong, and both are a similar price per ounce. Like dee above, I also like Genmaicha for the dry, tannic quality and tend to drink that hot, at night, before going to bed.
Thanks, Erin! And yes, totally agree about those overlaps. Lots of gardeners, too.
Of course you know that now I’m dying to try both the teas you mentioned. Will have to track them down.
It’s no surprise that those of us drawn to perfume are also drawn to tea. Tea is every bit as much about smell as it is about taste. Although always comforting, I never enjoy tea in the same way when I’m congested. One loses all the subtleties.
I’m a lifelong tea drinker, thanks to an English grandmother. I’ve never owned a coffee pot. I do, however, have about a dozen tea pots and cup-saucer sets that I’ve collected over the years. Some are hearty earthenware, others are porcelain so thin and light in weight I sometimes fear they’ll float away when empty.
I typically keep about a dozen varieties of tea on hand because each fulfills a different need or suits a different mood. Like you, I prefer a Keemun in the morning.
Yes, I agree. I was really struck by how much I could learn about the tea just by sniffing the unbrewed leaves.
I love this: “so thin and light in weight I sometimes fear they’ll float away when empty”
Teapots are a whole other subject. I know that some teas are specifically brewed in earthenware pots, it’s part of their flavor. And Bob, the other Tea Ambassador, swore by silver teapots. In fact, he’d been trying to figure out how to create a literal silver lining for teapots–a less expensive (and less heavy!) version of his big antique pot.
Alyssa, I enjoyed your article. I am learning to appreciate tea (raw beginner here!) and look forward to trying some of the ones you mentioned. I was going to ask about teapots. The iron ones from Japan are especially beautiful!
Hanunani, you got most of what I know about teapots in the comment above, I’m afraid, but there does seem to be a lot of opinion and ritual surrounding what to brew one’s tea in, and beauty is a big part of it. The whole thing is such a ritual–watching the water go into the pot, looking at the leaves, holding your cup or mug in your hand, inhaling the steam…
Hope you found the article useful. My intention was to provide an introductory map for people like you and me who are just beginning to explore!
I’m afraid that articles such as this remind me just how provincial my corner of the world is. Not only do we not have a tea shop in my town, we don’t even have a coffee shop. My choices for tea (and coffee) are pretty much what is available at the grocery stores. I ‘ve never really gotten into tea that much–once in a while I buy some, but I usually end up tossing it out because it has gone stale. You’ve got me thinking, though, that maybe I should try to explore the world of tea a little more. Did Tim give you any suggestions on just how long you can keep tea leaves around?
I’m really a coffee drinker, thanks to my grandmother. She got me started on coffee at a *very* early age (like about 3 or 4). My mother tried to tell me that if I drank coffee, it would stunt my growth–I am 5’9″, so if it did stunt my growth, maybe it is a good thing!
Yes, I did talk with Tim about storage and how long a tea would stay fresh. Basically, the storage rules are the same as for perfume–keep it away from light, heat and humidity so that you slow down the oxidization process and help the leaves retain their oils. Assuming the tea is relatively fresh when you get it (a big if at the grocery store, where it’s often exposed to both light and heat) and you keep it in a light-proof airtight container, it should keep up to a year, maybe (probably) more.
It sort of makes sense if you think about the way tea had to travel before air shipping–a whole lotta time on the back of a mule and in the hold of a ship before it even got to the shop–and it helps make sense of those beautiful Chinese and Japanese tea canisters, too.
If you scroll up, you’ll see that I listed some links to Robin’s tea articles. She lists some companies that will ship sample sizes of loose tea. Might be a fun place to start if you’re not ready to dive in. And you’re in shipping range of the Embassy, too, I believe..
Giggling about the coffee stunting your growth…
You know what I love about this? How similar it is to perfume — the smells, the sampling, the education, the pure enjoyment. (yes, the prices — so reasonable!) I enjoyed reading your article and the comments so much I’m inspired to hunt these down.
Oh, I’m so glad!
Yes, exactly, March, and all the ritual around it seems similar to perfume as well, though they are very different sorts of rituals. Very pleased I’ve inspired you to hunt them down, as you’ve sent me off to scour the internet many, many times.
Oolongs are my favorites too! According to the degree of oxidation you have notes from flowery to more spicy (cinammon-y), the best way to try them is with the Chinese tea preparation ritual (NOT the Japanese one), do try it! A good category of oolongs for beginners are the Chinese Te Kuan Yin ones (different spellings possible)
Bee, I will be looking up the Chinese tea ritual you mention today, thank you for the recommendation! That Oriental Beauty really deserves it…
it’s called Gong Fu, and requires quite an arsenal, so for the first time the best option is to find a (Chinese or sinophile) tea house, where they will brew it for you. You can find explanations in the net, but they sound more complicated than necessary. At home you can then simplify the procedure according to your equipment (but buying a small earthenware teapot is highly recommended, this is to be used exclusively for oolongs, of course
Ah, I see. Well I think this will have to wait for my next trip to a larger city, then. No Chinese tea houses in Austin that I’m aware of, though I’m sure someone, somewhere is making that happen here. Maybe I’ll ask Tim…
Very nice article, Alyssa. Thank you.
I’ve lived in England for 31 years so I’ve learned to make and appreciate a good cup of tea. Lapsang Souchong is the best thirst quencher ever. I also love Darjeeling and what we call ‘builder’s tea’ here. The best cup of tea I’ve had recently was Orange Pekoe by Mariage Frères: it took me by surprise (and not just because the Café de Flore, where I had it – for old time’s sake – charged me almost six euros for it, LOL!).
The French don’t know how to make tea: every time you order tea in a café, the teabag comes separately and, by the time the teapot arrives on your table, the water is not hot enough any longer for the tea to actually brew properly. That delicious Orange Pekoe was served in the same way, but I asked for more boiling water so I managed to get it right.
As for the Americans… whenever someone is drinking tea in a film or a TV series, the person is seen wandering around with the teabag still in the mug or cup, dunking it rhythmically while they talk. Please tell me none of you do that. It’s weird. LOL!
Nope, not me. Never rhythmically dunk my tea bag while wandering around. (To begin with, I use loose tea.) But I know exactly what you mean. It’s like a trope for middle-class left-leaning thoughtfulness, that dunking tea bag. I can just picture the heroine in her comfy cashmere lounging outfit, with her hair slightly dirty and her reading glasses on…
How odd that the French wouldn’t understand how to serve tea, given the fame of Mariage Freres and Fauchon teas!