Adventures in Portable Tea with Tea Drops

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Recently, Tea Drops* offered to send me some of their flavors after I was accepted into their affiliate program, so I’ve been trying their Classic Tea Drops Assortment* over the last couple of weeks. As I mentioned in my post on Pique Tea’s offerings, I’m a fan of finding ways to take tea with me on the go that is less complicated even than bringing a high-quality tea bag. Add to that recent concerns with microplastics in silky tea bags, and I’m always in the market for a way to take tea along with me that doesn’t immediately reveal me as a high-maintenance tea snob.

Tea Drops are a different direction of portable tea because they focus on flavors. Tea Drops are sweetened because the form is a compressed tea nugget, almost like a tea-flavored sugar cube, rather than a packet of powder. It’s worth noting that if you have to avoid all sugar, they do have some unsweetened types, but I went for their classic flavors: Rose Earl Grey*, Sweet Peppermint*, Citrus Ginger*, and Matcha Green Tea*. They come in a wooden gift box with two of each flavor. But the sweetened original Tea Drops have between 1-2 teaspoons of sugar each, so it’s not a huge amount of sugar. Just enough to give a pleasantly sweet cup of tea.

Now, I don’t drink a lot of sweetened tea, so these fit into a specific part of my life: namely lattes and after-dinner drinks. In the mornings, I will often have a lightly-sweetened tea latte instead of a solid breakfast. Sadly, the Rose Earl Grey Tea Drop didn’t have quite the right balance of sweetness, rose, and Earl Grey flavor for me. I had hoped that it would be a quick and easy way to recreate my favorite Rose Earl Grey latte from the local coffee shop. Plus, the tea is actually finely powdered tea leaves, not dehydrated brewed tea like the Pique Tea crystals. So there was a fair amount of sediment in the cup.

But the Matcha Green Tea Drop was made from a good blend of sugar and matcha powder. It wasn’t the best quality matcha powder, but it was certainly comparable to what you’d get at a Starbucks. In fact, a Matcha Tea Drop mixed into a cup of hot milk with my electric frother is probably the easiest dupe of a Starbucks green tea latte (I get mine “unsweetened” — that is, without the additional syrup on top of the sugar in their green tea powder). And the matcha mixes into the latte with little to no sediment.

The two caffeine-free flavors I tried were good for the other time I drink tea with sugar: when I want something sweet after dinner, but don’t want to eat a full dessert. Since Elliot started on solids, I’ve been watching how often I eat sweets, and we’ve largely stopped eating dessert most nights of the week. But once in a while I want a little something sweet, and while I love a hot chocolate, I don’t always want the dairy right before bed. So I’ve started having one of the caffeine-free Tea Drops as an after-dinner treat. It’s the perfect level of sweetness for me. The Citrus Ginger is a little heavier on the citrus and a little lighter on the ginger than I prefer (although I do drink straight sliced ginger in hot water, so I like it spicy). The Sweet Peppermint one is my favorite. It’s the perfect mix of peppermint tea and sweetness. These also have a sediment problem, but it’s fine enough not to be unpleasant, and it doesn’t detract from the experience.

Tea Drops also makes some other flavors that look interesting, such as their Cardamom Spice and their Dessert Collection, so perhaps I will keep exploring. All in all, I enjoyed this foray into sweetened, portable tea. If you like your tea a little sweet and want something that you could toss in your purse and take with you for when you have hot water or milk, these are definitely worth a look.

NB: These were sent to me free of charge in exchange for my honest thoughts. Links may be affiliate links, which are marked with an asterisk. If you’re interested in my other affiliate links, you can find them here. If you’re interested in contacting me for a collaboration, please read this page.

Tuesday Tasting: Two Dongfeng Meiren Teas

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Today, I’m doing another comparative tasting, this time of two Dongfang Meiren (or “Eastern Beauty”) teas I got from two different sources. I got the first in my Floating Leaves Tea order that I mentioned last week, and the second I bought at Ching Ching Cha in Georgetown after Nazanin of Tea Thoughts mentioned that it was good. After trying them both separately, I thought it would be interesting to try them side-by-side. I’m continuing to use my cupping sets because it’s supposed to be a good way to evaluate teas quickly.

I used 3 grams of leaves for each 125-ml cupping set, with 95C water. I did warm the vessels before adding the dry leaves, but I didn’t rinse. I ended up steeping each three times. The dry leaf aroma on the Floating Leaves (FL) tea was of toast with honey, while the Ching Ching Cha (CCC) tea smelled of floral honey.

The first steeping was for two minutes. The FL wet leaves smelled of clover honey and yielded a medium-dark gold liquor with a light hay or alfalfa flavor and a light mouthfeel. The empty cup smelled of muguet. The CCC wet leaves smelled of buckwheat honey and yielded a lighter gold liquor with a honey aroma. It had a sweet fruity flavor and a honey-water mouthfeel. There was a lingering cereal sweetness and the empty cup smelled of hay and honey.

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The second steeping was for two and a half minutes. The CCC wet leaves smelled of honey with a touch of smoke. The liquor aroma had a slight incense-smoke quality to it. The mouthfeel was thicker and juicier with a more pronounced straw flavor and less sweetness. There was a mild tannin. The empty cup smelled of honey and sandalwood. The FL wet leaves smelled of sweet grain. The mouthfeel was syrupy with floral and mild tannins. It tasted a bit like red raspberry leaf tea. The empty cup smelled faintly of caramel.

The third steeping was for three minutes. Both teas were obviously past their best flavors. The FL wet leaves had started to smell a bit like wet paper, and had a light honey sweetness but was obviously fading. The CCC had a sweet aroma, but fading, with a fruity honey sweetness. The spent leaves were similar in appearance, though the CCC leaves seemed a bit bigger.

NB: No affiliate links or promotional samples to disclose. To learn about contacting me for a collaboration, click here.

On Affiliate Links, Collaborations, Sponsorship, and Making Money as a Blogger

So this comes up more often in the beauty community, but every review blogging niche has some sort of relationship with brands and affiliate networks. While I’m a relatively small-time blogger, especially by beauty-and-lifestyle measures, I’ve accepted products in exchange for review and used referral links in the past. I’ve never done a fully sponsored post and video, but I would be open to it, and my contact information gives the guidelines I set out for such a collaboration. But I see people all the time either belittling bloggers and social media users who accept sponsorship or review samples, or else proudly proclaiming that they don’t accept products for review or sponsorship, and I thought I’d share some thoughts I have on the subject.

On the face of it, it seems like refusing to accept any compensation, whether in product or currency, for your blogging is admirable. You can’t be bought, and there’s no worry that you’ll give a product a good review because you feel bad criticizing it when you got it for free. Well, Tracy at Fanserviced talked about that a while ago, and, as she points out, concrete “stuff” is not the only “compensation” bloggers and social media users get for mentioning products in their spaces. It can feel warm and fuzzy when a seemingly-unapproachable brand notices you because you said something nice about their product. Getting mentioned by a brand can be a fantastic way to increase your visibility on some channels, and mentioning their products is a good way to do that.

But that discounts something even more insidious about blogging, particularly review blogging: it can be a really expensive hobby. I mean, if I still reviewed beauty products, how much readership would I still have, given that I haven’t really added a new product to my routine in months? I certainly wouldn’t be able to post every week, since I just don’t buy that much new product. And if I did, even if it were a moderately-priced range like The Ordinary, I would still probably be spending at least $100 per month to keep posting twice a week, if I were just reviewing products. Even as a tea blogger, I spend a lot of money on tea, but I’m fortunate enough to consider that “fun money” rather than something I need to do (I have plenty of fodder for Tasting Tuesday from my own stash and haven’t bought anything special for it yet). But someone who doesn’t have as much disposable income as I do wouldn’t necessarily be able to showcase as many things on a blog. And that means they wouldn’t get much traffic.

Now, as I said when I talked about switching from reviewing to tasting notes on teas, taste is subjective, just as beauty products are often intensely personal. So I’m not here to tell anyone they should or shouldn’t buy a specific tea. But because I spend my own money on tea, I’m looking at things like “value” from the perspective of my personal budget. So while I might not be willing to spend $150 on a cake of raw puerh, I would be perfectly willing to spend $65 on the same size cake of aged white tea. But let’s be honest with ourselves: these are luxuries. And $65 is solidly out of the budget of plenty of people. So me saying that a $65 cake is “worth the money” doesn’t mean much to someone with $5 a week to spend on nonessentials. And my honesty that I loved the $150 cake, but it’s too expensive to repurchase if I hadn’t gotten a sample for review, might actually be more applicable to more of my readers, especially since it leads me to talk about ways to try the tea for less money (i.e., samples).

So given that review blogging can be an expensive hobby, do we really want to make income a barrier to entry for the people we trust as “more authentic” sources of reviews? Would you rather read a review of a $100 face cream from someone who has hundreds of dollars of discretionary income to spend on luxuries each month, or a review of a sample of a $200 face cream that someone got for free and wouldn’t have been able to try otherwise? Do you want to limit blogging to a hobby for relatively wealthy people, or would you rather support bloggers who try to earn some income from their blogging so that there is more socioeconomic diversity in the field? These aren’t questions I can answer for anyone but myself, and it bears thinking about all sides of this. But, given that there is already a recognized correlation between financial wealth and good skin, I’m concerned that limiting beauty blogging, in particular, to those with the independent means to support it will limit reviews to those who might already have good skin to begin with (or at the very least, more access to other ways to improve their skin besides over-the-counter products).

And then, for me, there is the fact that not everyone who reads this blog has my exact tastes in tea, and I’m not only writing this blog for myself. Let’s be honest, if I were only writing for myself, I would keep it as a private journal, not a public blog. And as I dive deeper into the tea community, I’ve realized that the snobbery that sometimes underscores a lot of specialty tea writing doesn’t do us any favors. So why not feature some products that offer convenience or variety to those of my readers who aren’t looking for the funkiest puerh or the most obscure yancha? Which is part of the reason I accepted my recent review samples from Tea Sparrow — as a North American-based company that offers high-quality flavored teas, they’re poised to appeal to a larger variety of people and can help me bring quality loose leaf tea to more of my friends and family (I have already gotten my mother and my coworker hooked on their teas). Would I buy myself a box from them? No. I am not generally a fan of flavored teas. But was it probably helpful for some of my readers who enjoy flavored teas? Hopefully. And apart from that, I hope that sharing notes from teas like that helps foster a sense that there isn’t a hierarchy of tea purity where you’re not a “real tea lover” if you’re not drinking a specific level of tea. I’m not a fan of that attitude. If you want to drink pina colada tea with sugar and milk (coconut milk might be fun), you do you.

Plus, there is the idea of compensating creators for what they create. Apart from the monetary outlay of purchasing products for review posts, writing takes time. I’m fortunate to have a reasonable amount of free time and a talent for writing quickly, but I still probably spend at least a few hours every week writing content (and that’s not even getting into the time I spend on my YouTube channel) and promoting it on various social media channels so people actually see it. Yes, I write because I love it, but it still takes time, and I’m a firm believer that if you appreciate the work a creator makes, you should support it monetarily, either by donating to them (as I do to my favorite podcast and my favorite radio station) or by supporting their efforts to monetize their work through ads and affiliate links. You wouldn’t expect an artist to give you their art for free (don’t answer that; I know many people do), so why is a blogger less worthy of receiving compensation for their time, effort, and talent?

I suppose all of this rambling is also a bit of an introduction to my own affiliate practices. While I’ve used referral links in the past (for Glossier, most notably), I’ve recently decided to start using some affiliate links to see if I could offset a little of the cost of running this blog. I currently make exactly zero money from blogging, and even if I could start making enough money to support my half of the bread that I currently win for my family, I probably wouldn’t quit my job. I like my day job. But I still sometimes feel compelled to buy things specifically for a blog or YouTube idea I have, and this might help offset that (especially with my historical videos). And, at the end of the day, I don’t really think that having the money to spend on a blog should be a badge of honor.

Tuesday Tasting: Taiwan Ruby 18 Black Tea from Floating Leaves Tea

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I ordered a few teas from Floating Leaves Tea a little while ago, but I’ve been remiss in showing them the love they deserve. So, to remedy this, I decided to do a tasting of the Ruby 18 black tea this week. I’ve also started exploring tea cupping using a cupping set I got from Camellia Sinensis (or, if you want a US-based store, Art of Tea has a similar one*). I’m still learning the ropes of tasting in this style of brewing vessel, so I played around a bit. I suppose I might want to take an actual course in tea cupping, but that’s not really my style, so for now, I’m experimenting.

I used 3g of leaf in a 125-ml cupping set with 99C water. I did not rinse or preheat my cupping set before starting the tasting, but I did smell the dry leaves after adding them to the vessel. I got aromas of dried fruit, like prunes and sweet cherries, from the dry leaf. I did not rinse the tea.

The first steeping was for two minutes, after which, I got sweet aromas, almost like the glue on the back of old postage stamps, from the leaves. I know this sounds like an odd note, but it’s actually a very positive and comforting aroma for me because it reminds me of helping my mother at the office on snow days when my school was closed. The liquor was a rich mahogany brown color and really exemplifies why the Chinese refer to this kind of tea as “red tea” rather than “black tea,” as the West calls it. The liquor had a light fruity and smoky aroma. The body was medium-rich and had a lightly syrupy mouthfeel, with a hint of dryness afterwards. There was a light, smooth tannic flavor, followed by caramelized onion and dark stone fruit. This developed into a sweet-acidic flavor that reminded me of dried tart cherries and amaretto.

The second steeping, I went for two and a half minutes. The wet leaves smelled of caramel and wood. The liquor was slightly lighter in color, with a sweet smell that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, like some sort of sweet-smelling herb. The mouthfeel was richer and juicier with no dryness. The flavor had a sweet cereal taste, like barley syrup or toasted soybean powder with brown sugar. I still get stamp glue from the flavor. The cup aroma after finishing the liquor was pure caramelized sugar, and I noted that I was starting to sweat.

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The third steeping was for three minutes, after which I got aromas of wet paper from the leaves. The liquor was a similar color to the second steeping, with a faint sandalwood aroma. The mouthfeel is the same round, rich feel, but there is an acidic note, almost like a tomatillo, on the taste. The liquor was starting to taste a bit papery, which is often a sign that the tea is about finished. The fourth steeping, for three and a half minutes, was the last. The liquor was lighter — a dark apricot color — and the leaf aroma was exhausted. Only the acidic notes seemed left to the flavor with a bit of woodiness.

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The spent leaves were surprisingly large. I actually took a photo after the second steeping, but was surprised by how much more they expanded over the next two steepings, so I had to photograph it again. I’m definitely going to have to explore more Taiwanese red tea cultivars.

NB: Tea was purchased by me and all thoughts are my own. Links may be affiliate links (affiliate links noted with an asterisk). If you’re interested in supporting the blog by using my affiliate links, you can find them here. If you’re interested in collaborating or providing tea for tasting, you can find my contact and collaboration information here.

On Tea Blending and Herbal Teas

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A little while ago, I posted a picture on Instagram of a pot of tea that was a seemingly-random mix of things I tossed into a teapot and steeped in hot water and that tasted good. I got a comment asking if I’d consider making a video about blending herbal teas and sourcing herbs, but on thinking about it, I decided that it really fit a written post format better. I have gone into herbal tea blends a bit in the herbal tea section of my Tea Primer, but I thought I’d expand a bit on how I blend teas, since it really applies to so many things I make in my life. So this post is an attempt to expand on how I source and blend herbs.

Sourcing Botanical Ingredients:

Now, I’m going to refer to “botanical ingredients” or “botanicals” instead of “herbs” because there is some ambiguity about what makes a plant an “herb” versus a “spice,” and other categories of botanicals. And I use all kind of plants to create my botanical blends. It’s important to remember that herbal tea doesn’t just need to be botanicals from the herb store, and that everything we ingest has some effect on our body. So distinguishing between medicinal and culinary herbs or herbs and spices is largely arbitrary and meaningless.

So my first recommendation is to see what you can get from your local grocery store. I’m fortunate that my grocery store has a large selection of bulk botanicals, so I can buy small amounts of things I need for my herbal studies, as well as botanical ingredients for my kitchen (although all my herbs live in the kitchen). But I recognize that that’s not the norm, at least in the States, so I wanted to remind people with more traditional grocery stores to search the spice aisle of their grocery stores, too. And the produce section! I get fresh ginger root every week from the produce section, and lately I’ve always been grabbing a couple citrus fruits for their peels. Your store may even have fresh sage or mint in the produce section, and these make lovely teas.

In the spice aisle, I get cardamom, cinnamon sticks, star anise pods, fennel seeds, allspice berries, and other spices I might use once in a while. If you’re interested in flavoring your own rooibos, a whole vanilla bean split and buried in a jar of rooibos leaves is supposed to be amazing (I am not a fan of vanilla-scented teas). I’ve also used dried, rubbed sage from the spice section for sage tea when I can’t find fresh. I don’t recommend using powdered spices for teas, as they’re usually of dubious freshness, and can make an unpleasantly gritty cup of tea, but if you don’t mind a bit of sugar, some chopped crystallized ginger makes a nice substitute. Some stores even sell dried orange peel. And I’ve been known to use black peppercorns in some of my blends (even better if they have that fancy multi-colored peppercorn blend because each color has a subtly different flavor).

Once you’ve exhausted the offerings at your grocery store, I highly recommend you look around and see if there is a local herb shop near you. Before we moved house, I lived near the fabulous Smile Herb Shop (I’m still not far from them, but it’s not walking-distance anymore, which makes me sad), so I could go there and get things in person. Going to a shop in person not only gives you the opportunity to see and smell the botanicals before you pay for them, but also gives you a community of herbal experts and enthusiasts with whom to connect and discuss favorite blends. Plus, they may even offer classes. So go to Google and see if there’s an herb shop near you (be aware that you may end up getting results that sell CBD, kratom, or cannabis, if that’s legal in your area!). The Herbal Academy also has a list of farms and suppliers by region, that might help, as does Living Awareness.  And if you’re in the DC area, stop by Smile, and then go next door and say hi to my acupuncturist, Jared!

Now, at a certain point, you’re going to need to source something online. I mentioned in my Tea Primer that my two favorite stores for online sourcing were Mortar and Petal* on Etsy and Mountain Rose Herbs, and these recommendations still stand, but I wanted to go into a bit more detail about how I use each of them.

Mountain Rose is my favorite place to get excellent-quality botanical ingredients, as well as other things like oils, butters, and some seasonings. The botanicals are always incredibly high-quality and they are transparent about their sourcing practices. Plus they have amazing customer service. But for most of their botanicals, the smallest quantity they sell is 4 oz. and the shipping costs make it more cost-effective to only buy rather large quantities at a time anyway. So I don’t prefer buying from them when I’m creating a new blend of exploring new botanicals because I’ll have to buy too much at once. But most of my standbys and favorites come from Mountain Rose. I have big bags of chamomile, oatstraw, red raspberry leaf, and lavender from them, as well as some things I can’t really find anywhere else of as good quality, like linden (one of my recent favorites!). Back when I still forced myself to drink nettle infusion regularly, I bought nettles from them, and I’ve waxed rhapsodic about their fabulous dried peppermint in the past.

But when I’m developing a new blend or I want to try a small amount of a botanical ingredient I can’t find at my local store, I turn to Mortar and Petal. They sell small quantities, maybe just a half an ounce to two ounces, so I can try a bit and not waste things if I don’t like it, and they ship things simply in a padded mailer to keep shipping costs down, rather than sending a whole box. When I was developing my pregnancy tea recipe, I knew I wanted it to be mostly red raspberry leaf, with other botanicals primarily for flavor, so I ordered small amounts of the flavoring ingredients from Mortar and Petal and got a pound of red raspberry leaf from Mountain Rose to make it. They’ve also been wonderful as I’ve been going through my herbalism course to try small amounts of botanicals that I might not normally use for my Materia Medica.

Finally, don’t forget about your tea sellers! I got a package of gorgeous large chrysanthemum flowers from Yunnan Sourcing, and some delicious chrysanthemum buds from Seven Cups. Mountain Stream Teas has a roselle hibiscus that is amazing (it really does taste like biting into a fresh strawberry). Often tea sellers come across other botanicals in their sourcing missions and decide to buy some of those as well, so don’t discount a seller just because they primarily sell C. sinensis. And tea sellers can be an excellent place to find ingredients that are not common in western herbalism, like chrysanthemum or other botanicals common in traditional Chinese medicine.

Storing Your Botanical Ingredients Properly

Now that you have your botanical ingredients, you want to keep them in tip-top shape so they last for you. Most botanicals I buy come in a zip-top bag. I like the bags from Mountain Rose because they’re nice and thick and they close reliably, but if I get botanicals in a less sturdy bag, I will usually move them to a glass jar. Mason jars are wonderful, as are just any jar you’ve saved from pantry goods or jams or such. I’ve written in the past about my love of jars and botanical storage is an excellent reason to start your own collection.

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Keeping botanicals air-tight is not the only concern, however. You also want to keep them away from heat and light. Now, my kitchen is reasonably well-set-up so that I can keep my botanicals in a kitchen cabinet away from my stove so they stay fresh (I do keep culinary spices near the stove, but those don’t generally last too long before I use them up!). Because my pantry is open, I prefer to keep things in a cabinet to keep them in the dark. Storing your botanicals in jars also makes for a more organized presentation when you’re storing them, although I do still have to dig around in the back of the cabinet to pull things out when I’m making a complicated blend.

Other than that, the other important storage thing to keep in mind is to label the date that you either purchased or opened the botanical ingredients. I use the purchase date for botanicals I buy locally from a bulk store, and the opened date for botanicals from Mountain Rose that were in sealed bags, once I break the seal. Having the date on your botanicals is important because they do lose potency over time, no matter how good quality they are and how carefully you store them. That said, there’s no general rule for how long you can keep botanical ingredients. I have some red raspberry leaf that I got almost two years ago that’s still fragrant and delicious. So use your nose, eyes, and tongue to tell if your ingredients are still good.

Blending Delicious Herbal Teas

Alright, now you have your botanical ingredients and you’ve given them a lovely place to live. But how do you make them taste good together? Well, the short answer is that they taste good or they don’t; the only way to find out what tastes good to you is to experiment. But there are some culinary ideas that might help you reduce the error portion of “trial and error.”

First of all, understanding balanced flavors can be important. When I make a salad dressing or a marinade, I know that it’s important to balance flavors like salty, sweet, spicy, and tart. So if I add too much soy sauce to my marinade, I know I need to balance it with something like vinegar, and then if the vinegar is too sharp, I might add some honey or sugar. So I can translate that to tea, and if I’m making a tea blend with roselle, I know that can be quite tart, so I might want to tone it down with something sweeter or more fragrant. Perhaps I want to punch it up with some ginger, or tone it down with a sweet floral like chamomile.

On the flip side of that, you’ll also want to think about things that go well together. Contrasts are nice, but so is coordination. It’s why carrots and dill are often paired together — they’re both from the same botanical family, so their flavors meld particularly well. Now, I happen to despise dill, so I will use something like fennel in dishes that call for dill for a similar effect (fennel is also from the family Apiaceae). In herbal teas, the two main families to know about are Apiaceae and Lamiaceae. The first has your carrot relatives, including fennel, dill, cumin, parsley, anise, and many other herbs. The second is the minty family, with mints, as well as things like sage, lavender, thyme, and other fragrant botanicals. A very large portion of our catalog of botanical ingredients come from these two families, and knowing the plants in each can help you create harmonious blends. It’s why lavender and peppermint go so well together. Using botanicals in a similar family is a good starting point for a blend.

Another place to go for inspiration is, again, your grocery store and local shops. Perhaps you see a bagged tea that sounds interesting, or even that you already like, but you want a loose-leaf version. Or maybe there’s a tea that seems pretty good, but you think it would be better slightly different (I feel this way about pretty much every blend that uses licorice or stevia). Look at the back of the box and see what’s in it, and then play around with your own blend. Or look at a caffeinated blend and see if the flavors in it might be a good caffeine-free blend, such as the Jade Citrus Mint at Starbucks. The combination of peppermint, lemongrass, and other citrus is pretty classic. Personally, my go-to bedtime tea grew out of loving the Lavender Chamomile tea from Traditional Medicinals and wanting to make it with less trash from packets and teabags.

Ultimately, the best way to tell what blends taste good is to taste them. It’s important to taste pure botanicals to know what they taste like so you can see if you can guess what they might taste like in a blend. It’s similar to how I might taste plain honey or vinegar to remind myself how sweet or sharp it is to decide how much to add to a marinade or dressing. The other inspiration for my lavender chamomile blend was the fact that I wasn’t originally a fan of chamomile, but I thought the sweet floral flavor would pair nicely with the sharper, more camphorous floral of the lavender. And they do. Plus, I recently tasted some valerian root infusion (which smells like feet) and was surprised at how sweet it was, so that will inform any future blends in which I use it.

So feel free to start with single-note teas, I like to use at least a heaped teaspoon per 8 fl. oz. of water, with boiling water, steeped covered for 10-15 minutes, and then strained (some herbs get unpleasant if steeped too long). My favorite single-ingredient teas are fresh sliced ginger, fresh peppermint (I use a handful for a 16-oz. pot), chrysanthemum, and roselle. I use all of these ingredients in blends, but I originally started out with the simple infusion.

Many of my most complicated blends started out as single-note teas that I played with, kind of like writing a melody and then adding flourishes and harmonies to create a full choral piece. I couldn’t decide between chrysanthemum or ginger the other day, so I mixed them, and then added things as they sounded good. The result was the very complicated blend that I posted on Instagram the other week. Play around. Don’t be afraid to make something strange. Tastes are subjective and I’m not here to yuck anyone’s yum.

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So by way of an example, I wanted to go into detail about a blend I made recently. As I said, it started with indecision about whether I wanted ginger tea or chrysanthemum tea. Then, I wanted something to pump up the florality. Inspired by the classic Chinese “Eight Treasures” tea, I decided to add roses for a different floral note and some goji berries for their earthy sweetness. Finally, I added cardamom because 1.) I love cardamom, and 2.) it has a slight citrus note and I didn’t feel like peeling citrus. I could have added some orange peel if I felt like getting out the peeler. As far as sources, the roses, ginger, goji berries, and cardamom all came from my grocery store, while the chrysanthemum came from Yunnan Sourcing. I weighed out each ingredient as I added it and made a note so I could adjust it later. I think I could use a little more ginger and a little less rose next time.

Probably the most important part of tea blending is to take notes. Whether it’s a notes file on your phone or a dedicated tea blending journal, write down what you’re doing, or else you’ll never be able to replicate it. I like to use weight when I’m designing a new blend in a focused way, but I’ll also use a volume measurement, like the lovely wooden spoons my mother gave me. I’m terrible about writing things down, and there is a certain meditative sense of ephemera in creating a blend that you’ll never have again, but usually we want to be able to reproduce our delicious efforts. AND you’ll especially want to write down the fails so you don’t repeat them!

Finally, I want to encourage you to include C. sinensis in your blending experiments, if you drink it normally. Tea is just another botanical ingredient, and was originally considered an herbal medicine. In fact, when it first came to the western world, it was viewed as a remedy for gout, rather than a pleasure drink. So go ahead and blend some Tieguanyin with roses or some chrysanthemum with puerh. Botanicals love to play together.

A Note about Herbal Safety

Now, I am not an herbalist or a medical professional. But it is not an exaggeration to say that plants have effects on our bodies, and you would do well to keep that in mind as you blend botanicals. Especially if you take medications or have a condition that might make your health a little precarious, it’s important to know what the constituents of different plants might do in the body. So even if you’re not going to take an herbalism course, it would be a good idea to keep a reference collection of books on botanicals. I primarily use three books in my studies right now: The Way of Herbs, by Michael Tierra; A Modern Botanical, by Mrs. M. Grieves (also available online for free); and The Modern Herbal Dispensatory, by Easley and Horne. They are a good mix of science and folklore information, and have a pretty good variety of information. I always look up an ingredient, at least in Grieves, before using it in a blend to double-check that it’s not going to interact in an unexpected way.

So I hope that was an interesting introduction to my thoughts about blending botanicals. Let me know if you find any favorite blends!

NB: I am not a medical professional and none of this should be taken as medical advice or intended to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease. Additionally, everything mentioned in the post was purchased by me and all thoughts are my own. Some links may be affiliate links (marked with an asterisk), which will support the running of this blog if you make a sale through them. Please read my contact and collaboration information if you are interested in working with me.

Tuesday Tasting: Dragon Claw Oolong from Tea Runners

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This Dragon Claw Oolong tea was part of the free Pure Teas box I received last month from Tea Runners that I unboxed on my YouTube channel recently, and I’ve been curious to try it. I finally opened it (I have a plethora of oolong right now) and decided to give it a taste. This is a rolled Nepalese oolong that looks semi-oxidized and was harvested in Summer 2018.

I used 5 grams of tea in a 120-ml gaiwan with 87C water. The dry leaf is dark green-brown and rolled into loose spirals. I get an aroma of cream and roasted nuts from it. I did not rinse it, but instead went straight into steeping it.

The first steeping was for 20 seconds. The wet leaf aroma was roasty with an undertone of hazelnut liqueur. The liquor was reddish amber brown and smelled of amaretto. It had a smooth, milky mouthfeel and almost tasted like black tea with maple syrup and milk. It has a jammy and sweet fruity aftertaste, maybe like prunes. It also had a lingering flavor of roasted nuts. The second steeping was also for 20 seconds and yielded a slightly darker liquor with more roast aroma on the wet leaf and a fruity aroma on the liquor. It had a similar tea-with-milk flavor, with a hint of Frangelico.

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By the third steeping, also for 20 seconds, while the liquor was a similar color, I noticed the flavor becoming milder, with some tannin coming through. I left the fourth steeping for 45 seconds and for some cherry and firewood aromas from the wet leaves. The liquor had a lovely maple sweetness. The fifth steeping, also for 45 seconds, had lighter flavors and tasted of cherries, almonds, and tannin. By the sixth steeping, for a full minute, the tea seemed done.

The spent leaves were interesting, as they were quite narrow and small, despite being a whole-leaf tea. I’m used to oolongs have big fat leaves, but these were different from other oolong leaves I’ve examined. All in all, this was an intriguing oolong and makes me curious to try other non-black Nepalese teas.

NB: This tea was sent free of charge in exchange for my honest thoughts. All thoughts are my own. To learn more about the format of my tea tasting posts and why I switched from reviews to tastings, please read this post. For more information about collaborating with me, please read my collaboration information.

Tea and a Story: Goddesses and Groundhogs

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This weekend is the Celtic feast of Imbolc, the kind of traditional start of spring in the Celtic and pagan calendar. As someone with a strong affinity to pagan traditions, I like this idea. I first realized that I was keeping pagan customs when I was a runner in graduate school and found myself counting down to the winter solstice, which is when the days started getting longer, so I was that much closer to being able to run first thing in the morning without being in the dark. One thing I remember from those days was that the end of January and the beginning of February felt like the deepest depths of winter, when it felt like I might never be warm again.

But I like the idea of spring starting at the beginning of February. Traditionally, it seems that the seasons started at the cross-quarter days (the days halfway between the solstices and equinoxes), which is why our first day of summer is also called “midsummer” and our first day of winter is called “midwinter.” Supposedly, Imbolc was the time when ewes would give birth, and start producing milk, so milk, dairy products, and lamb are all traditional foods. I like to make a big meal, perhaps with a cheesecake, or some pancakes. While eggs are more commonly associated with the spring equinox festivals, the beginning of spring would mean the birds would start laying again (traditionally, eggs are a seasonal food, same as strawberries or pomegranates). So pancakes at Imbolc (which was celebrated in the Christian world as Candlemas) are traditional as well.

Imbolc is also associated with the Celtic goddess Brigid (later believed to have become the Christian St. Brigid), a goddess of inspiration, creativity, midwifery, healing, and fire. In one of the stories associated with her, she is kidnapped by the hag-goddess Cailleach and held captive in a cave underground through the winter, and then escapes to bring spring to the world. This is surprisingly reminiscent of the Greek myth of Persephone and Hades, although in that story, the chthtonic goddess Hecate is her rescuer, not her captor. In some version of the story, Brigid and Cailleach are the same goddess, with the winter crone transforming into the spring maiden at Imbolc. This traditional view of the cyclical nature of the world mapping onto the life cycle of a person is one of the things that gave rise to traditional death customs that favored reincarnation as the explanation for what happens after you die.

But perhaps my favorite story of Imbolc has to do with the Cailleach, not Brigid. In some parts of the British isles, the Cailleach is a weather deity and has the power to control local weather conditions. So on the first day of spring, it’s believed that the Cailleach decides if she wants to extend the cold weather or not for another six weeks. If she decides that it will be a long winter, she makes Imbolc bright and sunny so she has nice weather to gather firewood for the rest of winter. But if she’s not going to make it a long winter, she sleeps in and doesn’t bother making the weather nice. So if the weather is bad on Imbolc, it’s a sign that winter will end soon.

Perhaps this sounds familiar, although with another creature in the place of a crone gathering wood. In the States, we celebrate Groundhog Day, where we wait and see if a certain groundhog sees his shadow when he comes out of his burrow. Now, the modern tradition says that the groundhog is afraid of his shadow and if he sees it, he runs back into his burrow to weather six more weeks of winter. But perhaps, he just sees that the Cailleach has made the weather sunny and is dashing back in to get cozy for the rest of the winter weather.

Blessed Imbolc to all my readers!

On the Health Benefits of Tea

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Building on last week’s post about how I’ve decided to take steps to learn the medicinal use of plants in a more formal way, I thought I’d talk a little about how I view the supposed health benefits of tea (that is, C. sinensis). Now, much has been said, particularly in the Western press about tea as some sort of miracle elixir that is supposed to promote weight loss, improve your skin, fight cancer, and reduce inflammation in the body. And recently, my mother (who was the first tea-lover in my life, but who largely drinks black tea) came to me with a request: can I suggest some white and oolong teas that she might like because they are supposed to be good for her.

So I invited my mother over to introduce her to some teas, both those that I thought she would enjoy, and those that were just a relatively good representation of what can be easily found in each style. We chatted a bit about tea, how to brew it, what kind of things made different teas different, and a bit about the reason she decided to try to drink teas (other than black tea, which for some reason is largely exempt from the health sensationalism). Of course, the darling of the popular press is green tea, but my mother categorically does not like green tea. I’m sure I could find one that she enjoys, but I didn’t want to push her, so I respected the request for oolong and white teas only. I sent her home with a few packets of oolong teas that she enjoyed (include my newly-beloved yancha), and hopefully a new motivation to expand her tea horizons.

The one thing I will say is that I am not here to talk about the validity of health claims about tea. If you read my contact information, you’ll find that I am not willing to work with companies that make overblown health claims or that promote weight loss or detox teas. That’s just not what I’m about with tea. But I think it is important to keep concepts of healthfulness in mind as context when exploring teas because tea was originally used (as were most plant-based beverages) as a medicine. The apocryphal story of the discovery of tea has the (likely mythical) emperor Shennong fortuitously tasting leaves that fell into his boiled water and finding out that it was an antidote to poisons he was testing. So acting like tea is purely a pleasure beverage, with no reason to consider any medicinal use, is also not quite right.

When I was pregnant, I had a really hard time determining if it was safe for me to drink tea. I’ve written about my research at length in a previous post, but suffice to say, I found a disconnect between research that lumped tea in with other caffeinated vices, like coffee, and research that treated tea like an everyday, innocuous-or-healthy beverage. The research that reduced it to “tea is for caffeine and caffeine is bad” tended to come from Western researchers, while researchers from Japan and China tended to focus more on the specific constituents of tea. In fact, if I hadn’t specifically looked up tea research from Japan, I wouldn’t have found information suggesting that the real worry about tea is not the caffeine, but the fact that other constituents can impede vitamin absorption! It was important to look at these drinks in a cultural context, particularly because in the case of pregnancy, there is a strong drive to demonize things and instruct pregnant women to avoid, well, everything.

So where does that leave me in the “is tea healthy?” debate? Honestly, tea, for me, is likely healthier than coffee because I’ve found that coffee causes me, personally, to have issues. But in that same vein, I’ve found that certain teas are more likely to affect me adversely than others. I think it’s important for each tea lover to do their own research, but that ultimately, the important thing is that you enjoy your tea, and don’t simply suffer through it for some particular health benefit that may or may not have been properly tested. I think tea is wonderful, and I understand the impulse to tout all the positive press I can find about my favorite beverage, but I think drinking tea solely for health benefits is rather missing the point. So when I set out to introduce my mother to oolongs teas, my goal was to find a tea within that style that she enjoyed, not to introduce her to the healthiest version of that tea. And I hope you, dear readers, will also choose your teas based not only on their purported health benefits, but also for the joy it gives you, because joy is a healthy thing, too.

NB: I am not a health professional and none of this should be considered medical advice. Please do your own research and come to your own conclusions (which can include consulting your own doctor).

Tuesday Tasting: Two Black Teas from Georgian Tea Limited

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Recently, I saw a new company launch on Instagram, Georgian Tea Limited, which offers tea grown in the country of Georgia. I was first intrigued by Georgian teas when I saw Northern Teaist review some a little while ago, so I commented letting them know that I would be interested in trying some of their teas and they offered to send me “a few free samples.” What arrived was three 100-g bags of tea, one of each tea they offer, the Black Classic Tea, the Black Premium Tea, and the Green Premium Tea. Since it went back to feeling like winter this weekend, I decided to do a tasting of the Black Classic Tea, but as I was sipping it, I was really curious how it compared to the Black Premium Tea, so I decided to try that one, too.

Black Classic Tea

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I used 2g of leaf in a 120-ml gaiwan to taste this one, with 95C water. I steeped it once for three minutes and a second time for five minutes. The warm dry leaf had light aromas of dry hay. After the first steeping, the wet leaf smelled mildly tannic, with some malt and dark chocolate. Oddly enough, the first time I smelled this wet leaf, I thought that it smelled like the fancy version of Lipton’s tea, and my husband thought it smelled of lemon. The first steeping yielded a medium rosy-amber liquor that smelled similar to the wet leaf. The liquor has a bright citrusy flavor right up front, with a pleasantly light body and no astringent dryness. The website states that this tea has very mild tannins, and they’re not wrong. The aftertaste is lightly caramel-y and fruity, and it’s a very smooth cup of tea. I had tried this previously with milk and sugar, and I see now that that was a mistake. This is very much a straight-cup-of-tea daily drinker. There is a slight hint of sweetness to it.

The second infusion was similar in color with similar flavors and aromas, just slightly lighter. I decided to stop after two steepings. The wet leaf is interesting. These leaves are obviously much less broken than the Premium tea, and when they unfurl, they are narrow leaves with a shallow serration on the edges. I would be curious to learn more about the cultivars they use.

Black Premium Tea

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I know that among US tea aficionados, “premium” is synonymous with bigger, unbroken leaves, so I was surprised when I received my tea samples to feel through the packaging that the Premium tea seemed to be a smaller leaf size than the Classic. So I was curious how this translated to the flavor. I also used 2g of tea to a 120-ml gaiwan with 95C water, with two steepings, one for 3 minutes and one for five minutes. The leaf didn’t really smell like much, dry or wet, but the liquor it yielded was definitively darker, with a dark ruby-amber color. It had the same smooth and balanced flavor as the Classic, but with a burnt sugar sweetness and a fruitiness that was bolder on the tongue.

The second steeping brought forward the lemony flavor I got from the Classic, with a smooth, non-bitter, and slightly sweet taste. I didn’t take a picture of the wet leaves, but they didn’t really look much different from the dry leaf, just, well, wet.

I found these two teas extremely interesting and am likely to turn to them again as morning teas, as they are uncomplicated and invigorating, without needing much help from fussy brewing parameters or additives, making them perfect for rushed mornings and travel flasks on the train.

NB: These teas were sent to me free of charge in exchange for sharing my honest thoughts about them. To read my reasons for changing from tea reviews to tea tastings, read this post. For more information about collaborating with me, click here.

When Tea Isn’t Tea

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One of the constant battles among the community of tea connoisseurs is how to talk about infusions of plants that are not Camellia sinensis. There are those that are staunchly in the “tisane” camp — it’s not “tea” if it’s not from the tea plant. Others are perfectly happy to use the term “herbal tea.” Interestingly enough, history and linguistics bear out this camp, as the term “tisane” originally referred to a barley-based beverage and was not brought into the common lexicon to mean something other than C. sinensis steeped in hot water until modern times. In fact, in the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a recipe known as “beef tea” that was similar to a modern broth (interestingly enough, though Isabella Beeton’s 1860s book has recipes for “beef tea,” a similar dish made from chicken is called “chicken broth”). And I have found other instances of infusions of non-C. sinensis ingredients referred to as “teas.”

But this is a digression. You see, not all teas I drink are “true teas.” In fact, one of my earliest tea posts on this blog was my formula for my Gardener’s Herbal Tea, a blend of nettles, rosehips, red raspberry leaf, and oatstraw. Along with my love of C. sinensis, I’ve also had a passion for exploring herbal remedies since I was young. And in my Tea Primer, I expanded a bit on how I handle herbal teas (or tisanes or infusions, as you will) in general terms. But I would love to take more time in this space to talk about specific herbal remedies, and one of my tea goals for 2020 is to learn more about herbal traditions outside of the Euro-centric traditions I’ve primarily followed. So, to that end, I’ve decided to pursue some formal studies in herbalism.

This coincided with my own realization that I had stopped using one of my longtime personal herbal remedies, red raspberry leaf, since giving birth. I had been drinking red raspberry leaf tea for well over a year, starting from the time we first started thinking about trying to conceive, and on through my miscarriage, and then my pregnancy with Elliot. In fact, my pregnancy announcement on my YouTube channel was a tea session where I made a cup of red raspberry leaf tea. But I became thoroughly sick of it by the time Elliot was born (nearly two weeks late!) and had stopped drinking it in favor of other things after his birth. But in chatting with a friend on Instagram, I realized that I had always appreciated its support during my monthly cycle, and so I came home that night, mixed up a big pot of red raspberry leaf with chrysanthemum, orange, and some local honey for taste, and sat down with my mug in hand to explore my herbalism course options.

I discovered that one of the greats of herbal healing, Rosemary Gladstar, offers an online course that even has an option to sample just the first lesson for a modest price before committing the time and money to the full course. So I leapt at that and am now awaiting my first lesson to see how I like the course style. Hopefully, I’ll enjoy it, but for now I’m reading the books on herbalism I already have while I wait (along with maybe one or two new purchases), and have even ordered some fresh packets of herbs I’ve liked in the past. I’m excited to start this journey and have you all along with me, and I will almost certainly post updates as I progress!