Monday, May 27, 2013

Review #24 - Suki Tea Earl Grey Blue Flower

So one day I'm checking my twitter feed and I see this.

@EarlGrey1 Challenge on. Where do we send our hand blended Earl Grey tea for tasting?

I know I'm not the worlds most storied tea reviewer in the world but I have been contacted by both tea makers and tea magazines before. In each and every case things just haven't worked out. So when I first saw this message I was kind of expecting the whole thing to just fizzle out. But I was wrong because Oscar, the person who had sent the post was totally serious about sending me some tea to review. Even after informing him that I lived in the States he had this to say via twitter direct msg.

@EarlGrey1 Hi, don't forget to send me the address.

So I sent him my address and waited. To be honest, I'd given my address to other people promising tea and it never came so yes, I still wasn't sure. Then on Saturday night when I checked our mail, a rather large package from Belfast was staring me in the face. Oscar was true to his word and did in fact mail me some Earl Grey. Adding to my surprise, it was a 100g bag. I was beyond shocked because I was completely expecting a small, sample size package which would have been totally acceptable. So it appears I will be reviewing my first Earl Grey that I didn't need to purchase. Needless to say, a huge Thank You to Oscar at Suki Tea. Now on with the review.


 As you can see from the picture, the tea came in what looks like an ordinary paper bag. But under closer inspection you'll see the bag is a bit "waxed" and when you open it, will find a plastic coating on the inside. This bag is for shipping only and Suki's packaging is very clear:

Once opened, store in a sealed airtight container and consume within 3 months.
I did my typical cheating aroma test before opening and Suki passed with flying colors. I couldn't pick up any form of aromas which means you should loose little to no flavor in transit. Upon opening it I was greeted with a subdued aroma. It really didn't smell like any Earl Grey I've tasted before. It almost smelled flowery. That's when I remembered what the ingredients were:

Ingredients: Organic Rainforest Alliance Certified Tanzanian Black Tea (97.8%), Organic Centaurea Ceranus cyanus flower petals (1.5%), Organic Bergamot flavouring (0.7%) 
Trust me, when I saw the Centaurea word I was clueless so I did some checking on their website and via my favorite search engine. Come to find out, it's cornflower. As the expression goes, learn something every day. Since I had Oscar's ear via twitter I asked him where the idea to add cornflower came from. He had this to say:

I was a designer before I started this company. Visual impact is a big part of any food and drink experience. This is part of the theater.  
So we know the tea is all organic and Fairtrade. We know exactly how much of everything is in it, which is so nice given all the issues we are currently facing with labeling. And we know the person in charge is not just going for a certain flavor but for a total experience. I'll admit, Oscar had peaked my interest.

Note: For those of you who know your Earl Grey variations, Lady Grey (Ie.Twinnings) includes cornflower as well and it purposely keeps the begamot to a minimum.

Steeping Method

I've said it many times before but I tend to default to a 4 minute steep time when it comes to Earl Grey. I'm probably wrong for doing so but there it is. So when I read the steeping instructions on the bag I honestly didn't see them and just went 4 minutes. I remember seeing the 5 but what I didn't see was the 1 before it. Somehow my brain had blocked that part out and had me thinking 4-5 minute steeping time.
So while waiting for the timer to go off for my first attempt, I grabbed the bag and re-read everything. That's when I saw the 4 was not a 4 but a 1. Khaaaaannnnn!!!! I cringed because that meant I had some serious work ahead of me. Here is what the bag has to say:
1 teaspoon per person. Infuse for 1-5 min in fresh boiled water
So I'm going to warn you now, this review will be very data driven. Why? Because for each 1 minute time period I also had to test the re-steep. It's a dirty job but someone has gotta taste all this Earl Grey Tea.

The Results

So here goes.

At 1 minute
Barely there, very thin, cooling really doesn't bring any additional sweetness. Color is very lite.  Re-steeping is almost equivalent to a first steep. To be honest I don't see the point. If this were an Oolong and this was part of the "washing" step then maybe I would agree but I wouldn't do it.

At 2 minutes
A bit more flavor but still very thin. Noticed color got darker but again, not a very full flavor. Cooling doesn't allow any additional flavors to get noticed. Re-Steep is on par with the 1 minute 1st steep. You get a bit more flavor but why make your first cup so thin just to get a second.

At 3 minutes
Flavor jumps up a bit and the color continues to darken. Cooling helps but now I'm starting to notice less of the bergamot and more flowery tastes. At this point I would describe this tea as a very lite flavored Earl Grey. Re-steep will get you two of pretty much the same cups of tea. If you like a very lite Earl Grey then you will enjoy the re-steep as well. Go to 3 minutes for both the first and second steeps.

At 4 minutes
This is where I started to really enjoy this tea. Color is on par with most other Earl Greys. When you taste it right after steeping the flowery tastes come through more then the bergamot. As I've done before I'm going to suggest waiting. Once this tea began to cool the bergamot rose to the top of the flavor chart and I got to enjoy a good Earl Grey. Now here is the interesting part. The re-steep produced a pretty big surprise. If you go 4 minutes for the re-steep you will get a cup of Earl Grey almost equal to the first. I'll repeat, I was really surprised. There is no flowery tastes left and all you get is tea and bergamot. I repeated this time frame and got the same results.

At 5 minutes
And then we fell off the cliff. Sadly at the 5 minute mark I thought the flowery taste overwhelmed the bergamot and no amount of cooling allowed it to come through. Re-steeping produced more of the same.

Now before we move on, I need to bring up the wine comparison again. With wine you have different varieties. You have Merlot, Cab Sav, Chianti, Shiraz, the Pinot's, Chardonnay and Riesling. Each are good in their own right but people have favorites. Keeping that in mind, Suki Earl Grey is a lite variety.

One final strange note. As you saw written, Oscar added the cornflower to improve the overall aesthetics of the tea.  The cornflower is this wonderfully bright and vibrant blue color that really stands out. Ironically enough the same cornflower that was added, has the opposite effect when re-steeping.
When setting up the tea for my post steeping picture my wife asked me what the clear stuff was.  I had my own opinion on the matter so I let her give hers. She said it looks like someone added cooked white onions. Sadly I totally agree.


See above for all the details.

Final Thoughts

This tea can probably be many things to many types of Earl Grey people. It can be very, very lite or it can be a bit stronger. At the 4 minute mark this tea gets the closest to what I personally like in an Earl Grey. But just to repeat, this is a Chardonnay and I'm more of a Cab Sav kind of guy. I can definitely appreciate what Oscar has done and once I found my steeping time I enjoyed this tea. I also love the fact there is nothing unknown, it's all organic and fair-trade ingredients. As far as I'm concerned this tea puts Belfast on the tea map. To end, I'd try it for yourself and see where your steeping takes you.  I'm sure there is steep time for everyone.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Review #23 - Harney & Son's Earl Grey (loose)

In the past few reviews I hinted that I did my second bulk purchase from another well known “Tea House”. The reason this “Tea House” was selected comes from the feedback I’ve received from countless people suggesting them. So when fellow tea drinkers, and more specifically those tea drinkers who also enjoy Earl Grey, said I should check out this “Tea House” I listened. So as the title reveals, the tea house in question is Harney & Son’s. I ended up purchasing samples which covered their entire “just” Earl Grey varieties. With that news revealed, let’s get onto the review.


The sample comes in what looks like a generic pouch because of the four samples I received, the only difference between them appeared to be a sticker with the actual tea variety name. The steeping instruction, which we’ll go into more detail later, covers all kinds of tea. My initial reaction to this set up was a bit off until I considered how this could help keep packaging prices down. But then again when you receive packaging that has instructions specific to that tea, it does give a sense of focus. As the expression goes, I’m obviously splitting hairs on the matter but why not mention it, so if you feel one way or the other you can join the conversation and leave a comment. One of the things I like about the pouch was its zip-lock like closure. My reviews include multiple steeps so keeping my samples fresh is very important to obtain a fair review.

As to the aroma itself I would have to characterize it as subdued The aroma will not blow you away with overwhelming citrus or a lot of perfume. Actually it’s one of the few teas I’ve reviewed that allow you to pick up both the bergamot and the tea. But as we've seen, some tea crafters mix a tea that brings a lot of flavor even with a lesser aroma so this will always be just one metric to my reviews.

At this point I was rather curious as to what the ingredients were and here is what their site said:

Our blend uses teas from India and China, blended with natural Oil of Bergamot.
One can only hope the bergamot oil used was derived from the fruit found in this website's favorite Italian area.


I touched on this before but let’s get into the details now. Their sample bags, which may or may not be different from their full size bags, have instructions for brewing all kinds of tea. Given my focus on Earl Grey I went with their Black Tea instructions which were listed as follows:

Black Teas, Black Flavored Teas and Herbals
To enjoy a delicious pot of tea, please preheat your pot for a minute with boiling water then discard this water. Place a teaspoon of tea per desired cup into the pot and pour boiling water over the tea. Brew 4-5 minutes. Strain and remove the tea leaves.

The Result

For my first attempt I went with the four minute steep time. As I have stated many times, 4 minutes of
steeping appears to be synonymous, minus a few exceptions, with Earl Grey. At this steeping time the color was good and maybe even a bit darker than the average color I’m used to seeing. The flavor on the other hand was on the thin side to begin. It had some fruity bergamot flavors but allowed the tea to be enjoyed as well. As the tea cooled the bergamot flavor became more pronounced and I enjoyed it a bit more. It was still on the lighter tasting side but still had a good flavor. From there, I moved on to 5 minutes.

At the 5 minute mark things changed in two different directions. In the bad, letting the tea go that extra minute meant the tea was (obviously) hotter which took away from the initial tasting. It was almost as if the heat of the tea made it impossible to enjoy. So I let the tea sit for a bit and tried again and that’s where the good occurred. After about a minute of cooling the extra steeping time started to pay off. The tea was definitely fruitier leaving me to believe in this blend the bergamot needed more time to fill the tea with its flavors. As I continued to drink this tea, and it continued to cool, I enjoyed it more and more. But keep in mind; this is still a lightly flavored Earl Grey. Along with the 5minute steep time came a slight after taste which had me wondering if I burnt the tea or our old friend "natural" was a bit more?


It’s broken record time, so here goes. If you want to re-steep, go with the 4 minute steep time and you’ll get an even lighter Earl Grey for your second. Personally, I’d stop the steeping just before 5 minutes, enjoy what this tea has to offer and forget the re-steep.

Final Thoughts

If you like a lighter flavored Earl Grey I’d definitely try it for yourself. I like a bit more cooling flavor (fruity) so I'm looking forward to trying the other samples from Harvey in hopes of finding something a bit stronger.

Update: My Apologize to Harney & Sons for my initial typo with their name. I wrote it once then copied and pasted using that incorrect spelling more times then I care to admit. Hopefully I fixed them all. If you find one here or online on Twitter, let me know so I can make it right. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Review #22 - Bigelow Earl Grey (bagged)

There is a famous idiom/expression that goes something like this:

Familiarity breeds contempt 

To some that means the more you know something/someone the more you see their faults and on and on it goes. I personally don't buy into that line of negative thinking but rather go with "the more you know something the more you can appreciate." I'm going to give a bit a way for this review and say that I know Bigelow Earl Grey very, very well. After watching one of the first Star Trek Next Generation episodes I had my first ever cup of Earl Grey and it was Bigelow that I first tried. I'm guessing it was not the same "brand" that Picard was drinking but it got me started on my tea loving journey. So with all that out of the way, lets get on with the review.....Number 1, make it so.


Bigelow does a good job of sealing their bags because I couldn't pick up any aroma from either the box or the wrapper. Once you open the wrapper I will admit the aroma is rather faint. It's neither filled with perfume nor is it ripe with fruity freshness. To put it bluntly you really have to get your nose into the wrapper to get a full inhale. And once you do it's rather timid. According to the box there are only two ingredients:

black tea, natural oil of bergamot
There is some marketing speak about hand picked and tender leaves but in reality Bigelow doesn't really give you any real info when it comes to what kind of black tea is present. Also, and I know I've beaten this subject to death, this is not an organic tea so we have to take a leap of faith on how "natural" the natural oil in this tea really is. But the one thing Bigelow shows up huge on is... No Staples. That's right please give them a polite British clap while saying thank you. It's nice to see a large company like Bigelow move away from putting metal in tea and going with the wrap and knot.

Steeping Method

This is where Bigelow tea zigs where everyone else zags. Even I'm guilty of falling into the 4 minute trap when it comes to Earl Grey. But then again so many varieties use that time and come out perfect, so I just default to it. Well think again...and so you'll believe me ... here it is, right from their box... word for word:

Pour Boiling water over tea bag in a cup and steep for 1 to 2 minutes.

Heresy. She's a Witch! Burn her..... where's the duck to make sure. No more Newts!!!! It's like reading crazy talk. No one steeps their Earl Grey for just 2 minutes! Well think again, because as the label says, 1 to 2 is all they are calling for. So what does this insane steeping time produce?

The Results

I'm going to give this tea an award and then explain why I did such a weird thing.

Bigelow Earl Grey is awarded the Bear Grylls Survival award.

At this point in the review you've probably thought I've lost it but hold on and let me explain.

The color of this tea at the 1-2 minute mark is on the light side but I'm telling you to ignore that and keep steeping. Seriously, just leave the bag in there and start drinking when ever you are ready. Why? Because this is the tea that created the reason I stress test all my teas. At 1 to 2 minutes this is a very thin tasting tea and doesn't have much to talk about. But let it go and you will be rewarded with a pretty decent tea...for the price... and for it's availability. On three different occasions, I have needed, wanted, craved Earl Grey and didn't have any. So I head to what ever place is closest and go with the idea that my choices with be slim to none. But every time I go looking, I find Bigelow Earl Grey (and other flavors). It's amazing.

I was camping once and I found this tea at their tiny little variety store. While vacationing in New Hampshire
we had some water spill and all the tea I brought was ruined. A mile and a half down the road I find Bigelow Earl Grey in some tiny supermarket at 9pm on a Sunday night. While on vacation in Portugal a few years back I was offered tea only to see them pull out Bigelow. Seriously, the reason this tea gets the Bear Grylls award is because I call it survival tea. No matter where I go I can find it, at a good price, and it's always the same. And that's the reason I will always have a spot in my Tea Tasting heart for this tea.

Now to be honest, this tea isn't going to win any awards for it's complexity, or it's unique flavor. This is plain Jane Earl Grey. No bells, No whistles, No flashing neon lights, just good old fashion bagged Earl Grey that you can find anywhere on the cheap. So don't expect any flavor change as it cools, because you won't get any and don't expect people to debate the merits of their results. But for less then 3 dollars a box (20 bags) how can you go wrong?


Given how strongly I suggest you just leave the bag in, this tea cannot be re-steeped because there will be nothing left. Sorry but that's the breaks.

Final Thoughts

So, just to be clear. Don't buy this tea because you are looking for the most exquisite tea known to mankind. Don't buy this tea because it's organic because it's not. But if you are ever on vacation, on travel, or find yourself jumping out of a plane into some remote part of the world, fear not because I'm sure within 5-10 miles of where you land, there will be a store that carries Bigelow Earl Grey. And when you bring that box back to your campsite, hotel room or newly made evergreen survival hut, you will be happy you did. Seriously, you need to boil the water before you drink it so you might as well have some tea.