Tea Together Tuesday: Revisiting Rooibos

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Today on Tea Together Tuesday, a delightful community tea prompt hosted by Tea with Jann and Tea is a Wish, the prompt is to share a tea or tisane that you did not used to like but now do. Of course, I knew I had to share my difficult relationship with rooibos.

I probably first discovered rooibos tea at Teavana in the 90s, so it was likely flavored and sweetened. Looking back, one of the most popular flavorings for rooibos is vanilla and I generally dislike vanilla-flavored teas, since the artificial-vanilla-scent reminds me of vanilla notes in perfume, which I also dislike (I prefer my scents based with wood, moss, or vetiver). Rooibos was just one of those things that I Didn’t Like. I even said as much when I was first contacted by brands offering me review samples and I quit my first tea subscription after accumulating nearly a dozen rooibos blends that I had no interest in trying.

But then I read the incomparable Henrietta Lovell’s book Infused and was enchanted by her description of the farms where she sources wild rooibos in South Africa. I’ve talked before about how reading her book certainly infused me with a desire to try all of the teas she discusses, and led to a somewhat large-ish order from the Rare Tea Company, including a pouch of the wild rooibos. After re-reading Henrietta’s book and chatting with some friends, I realized that I likely had never had rooibos steeped as strong as it needs to be. So when I received my tea, I steeped it strong, boiling it in water for five minutes, before straining into a mug. And I was floored by the woody complexity of flavors. It reminded me more of an Islay whisky than the cloying blends of my past.

That started a new habit of making either plain rooibos or rooibos boiled with spices every evening after dinner. It made a rich and comforting evening cup, without any caffeine. And soon, I had finished the 50-g packet that I had initially been concerned about buying since it seemed so large for a tea I probably would not enjoy. Now I had to buy more.

Since I had newly rediscovered my love of rooibos, I decided to try another company. I had long been intrigued by the principles of sustainability, stewardship, and conscience behind the company Arbor Teas, so I decided to include some of their organic rooibos in an order. And while I no longer drink it every night, I particularly like it on chillier evenings when most relaxing herbals feel a bit cooling. The brilliant auburn color and warm, woody texture make the perfect nightcap.

NB: Nothing to disclose. If you’re interested in collaborating with me, please read my contact and collaboration information.

Tuesday Tasting: Tea Sparrow October 2019 Tea Box

NB: Tea Sparrow sent me their October box for free in exchange for posting a tasting. All thoughts are my own. Links are not affiliate links.

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This week, I’m sharing a bit of a different tasting. While I generally drink unflavored pure teas and often taste my teas gong fu style, I am a firm believer in evaluating teas on their own terms rather than trying to shoe-horn different teas into gongfucha. I was recently contacted by Tea Sparrow, a company that sells subscription tea boxes. Most of their teas are flavored, but everything is organic and natural and they use biodegradable packaging, so I was intrigued to try. Plus, I know plenty of my readers are not necessarily solely interested in drinking fussy pure teas and might appreciate knowing about some good flavored teas. They sent me their October box, which included two caffeine-free herbal teas, a flavored green tea, and a flavored black tea, so I thought I would do my tasting using their brewing parameters.

But of course, this isn’t a review; this is a tasting. So I still made sure to check aroma and look of the “leaf” at various points during the brewing. And I made a point to really roll the flavors around in my mouth, the way I would with any other tea. Let’s see how the October teas do with a full tea tasting.

Pina Colada Green Tea

I will admit, when I saw this tea, my first thought was

Anyone who reads this blog knows that not only am I not usually a fan of flavored teas, but “dessert-y” type flavors like this are at the bottom of my list of likes (top of my list of dislikes?). But this is a tasting, not a review, so here we go.

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Right off, I could smell the coconut through the package, and it had an almost sunscreen-y aroma, but as soon as I opened it and poured it out into a warmed teapot, the scent became this rich, very true coconut aroma. It’s actually a very warm scent, which is odd for what I thought would be a summery tea. The dry green tea is medium olive-ish green and has moderately small, straight and flat leaves. It almost looks like a Japanese green tea (or a Chinese green processed like a Japanese tea?). There are also pieces of sugared pineapple and flakes of toasted coconut. I tasted one of the pineapple pieces and it’s sweet and has taken on the coconut flavor.

I first steeped this tea using one tablespoon, which was 4.8g, in a 250-ml glass teapot with 180 F water for two minutes, as per the instructions. The wet leaf had an almost savory aroma and the liquor was pale gold with a light coconut aroma. The dominant flavor was green tea, with noticeable umami and a lightly astringent finish. The coconut was an undertone to the flavor, with no noticeable sweetness and a surprisingly warm flavor.

Out of curiosity, I took the same leaves and cold-brewed them for three hours. The cold-brewed liquor was buttery and fragrant with a more pronounced fruity flavor.

Organic Vanilla Mint Rooibos

They are not kidding when they say this tea is “peppermint forward.” Again, I could smell the peppermint through the package. The dry leaf is an obvious blend of rooibos and dried peppermint leaf. The dry leaf smells strongly of peppermint, but the addition of vanilla and rooibos adds a rich depth that reminded me of a York peppermint patty. In my notes, I put a parenthetical that it “clears your sinuses.”

I used one tablespoon, which was 4.4g, in a 12-oz. mug with boiling water for five minutes. The liquor is a deep reddish brown and has a distinct aroma of each individual component, rather than blasting your sinuses with menthol like the wet and dry leaf. Peppermint is still the strongest flavor and it is a menthol-y peppermint, not a green peppermint flavor. Rooibos is the second most prominent with a rich woody flavor and the vanilla is subtle and reads as chocolate to my tastebuds, without that weird artificial vanilla flavor that happens with vanilla-flavored teas.

Organic Crimson Currants

This was the first tea I tried from the box, the day it came, as my evening cup. I like to unwind with a warm beverage after I put Elliot to bed, and I get tired of lavender-chamomile. This is a blend of dried fruit, rosehips (which are also a fruit), rooibos, and lemongrass. You can see all the components in the dry “leaf.”

I steeped one tablespoon, which was 6.5g, in 250 ml of boiling water for five minutes. The liquor is a deep crimson color and has an almost thick look to it as it pours. It has the same fruity aroma as the dry leaf. I made a note that it looks like stage blood (corn syrup and red food coloring)! The first flavor that hits you is tart, probably from the rosehips and hibiscus. It’s a thicker tartness than hibiscus usually gives, but without the sickly, almost tomato-y flavor I sometimes get from rosehips. It has a syrupy mouthfeel but no actual sweet favor. There is a little bit of lemon-candy flavor from the lemongrass. The berries are very subtle and I didn’t taste any rooibos from this at all. My final note is that “this tea is what ‘Red Zinger’ wants to be.”

Organic Masala Chai

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This, I tasted both plain and with milk and honey, since masala chai is actually a drink made with tea, not just a tea, so the traditional drink involves dairy and sweetener. The dry leaf shows a lot of whole spices like clove and cardamom among the very typical-looking Indian tea leaves. I can definitely smell the cinnamon flavoring, as it had strong, sweet cinnamon scent, like Ceylon cinnamon, but the ginger is also present as a base note to the dry leaf aroma.

To start off, I brewed one tablespoon, which was 5.9g, in 250 ml of boiling water for five minutes. The liquor “smells like Christmas,” according to my notes. There is a strong cinnamon aroma. Interestingly enough, the flavor is not overly cinnamon-y. The ginger comes through nicely and I get a little of the cardamom. It has a spicy finish, but the dominant flavor is from the Assam, with a big malt flavor, currant notes, and not too much tannin.

Adding honey to it brought out the cinnamon, and milk brings out an almost chocolatey quality. I also re-steeped this with boiling water for five minutes, giving it a little stir, and found that the ginger and cardamom were more pronounced, even when I added honey.

So there are my tastings of the four teas that came in the Tea Sparrow October 2019 box. And if you like flavored teas and are interested in trying a box, or buying any of these teas on their web store, you can use the code “TeaLeavesandTweed” on their site for a 20% discount on your first order or your first month of the subscription.

Autumn Tea Blend for Samhain

Blessed Samhain to my friends who celebrate! In this season of pumpkin spice, I sometimes find myself craving something a bit deeper, so I thought I’d share a little tea I blended up for myself today.

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I’ve long had a complicated relationship with traditional “pumpkin spice” blends, as I’m not often fond of cinnamon, except in very specific contexts. More often than not, I prefer to focus on other spices, such as the cardamom and allspice in my Regency-inspired drinking chocolate recipe. And allspice, to me, is that certain je ne sais quoi that defines autumn spice. So my blend keeps allspice, but eschews the rest.

But what it lacks in spice, it makes up for in a deep, rich roasted quality that brings to mind cool forests and evening fires. Dark roast hojicha from Hojicha.Co gives that deep, smoky campfire note, while wild rooibos from The Rare Tea Company marries with the hojicha in a beautiful and inseparable way. I spoke yesterday about my previous dislike of rooibos, but this wild rooibos tastes of earth and wood and reminds me more of a good whisky than the insipid and artificial caffeine-free flavored blends I’d had previously. Combined with hojicha and allspice, this blend tastes like autumn in a cup.

I’ve left this recipe relatively unadorned, but I imagine it might be delicious with some additions. Add a splash of apple cider or maple syrup if you prefer something sweeter. A cinnamon stick wouldn’t go amiss, if you’re into that kind of thing. The most important thing is to experiment and have fun.

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Dark Samhain Night Tea Blend

2.5g dark roast hojicha
2.5g wild rooibos
0.5g allspice berries

Add the ingredients to a teapot or infuser mug and pour 250ml of boiling water over them. Allow to steep for five minutes. Sweeten to taste, if desired, and enjoy. May be resteeped at least once with delightful results.

NB: All ingredients were purchased by me with no incentive to feature.

On My Bookshelf: Infused: Adventures in Tea

Everyone and their brother in the tea social media universe has become enamoured of Henrietta Lovell’s new book Infused: Adventures in Tea. So of course I need to add to the chorus of her praises here with my own thoughts on this fun little book. It is an ambitious work, blending memoir and tea education into a work that reminds me more of some books on yogic philosophy that I read years ago than a typical tea primer. Henrietta has led an amazing life as “The Tea Lady” and this book is foremost a collection of her experiences in tea.

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She starts at her home, where she discusses her “bed tea,” that first cup of tea in the morning, preferably drunk in bed. From there, we circle the globe, meeting tea producers and tea consumers the world over. It is perhaps worth noting that the chapters follow the teas that her company, The Rare Tea Company, sells, which is perhaps a brilliant marketing strategy because as I read the book, I became enchanted by the stories she tells and wanted to try the teas. So I can now make myself a cup of her White Silver Tips as my own cup of bed tea and have a little ponder about this delightful little book.

I think the thing that makes this book so utterly enjoyable is that you get a clear sense of Henrietta’s personality in her writing style. She is a classic British lady (English, mostly, and Scottish when it suits her) with a love of tea and red lipstick. How could I resist? While I have not had the pleasure of meeting her in person, as she had not yet made plans to come to Washington, D.C., on her tour, friends who have met her insist she is exactly like you would imagine from the book. As an avid reader of fiction, it is charming to believe that one of these characters from a book I loved might be walking around in my world. As she travels the globe investigating tea and other plants, she often gives her guests in each chapter the starring role, but there is enough personal anecdote to feel like you’re in the room with Henrietta as she regales you with stories of her life.

And while I’ve mentioned that the book serves as an excellent advertisement for her company’s teas, it doesn’t come off as artificial. The desire to try her teas is so strong precisely because she gives the teas and farmers the stage, letting them present themselves, rather than sounding like a salesperson. By punctuating her chapters with recipes, she entices you to try her tea, though she always writes to allow that you may order the same variety of tea elsewhere. And her final appendix on making a good cup of tea is approachable to anyone with an interest in tea, not just the expert or connoissieur. While she herself uses a gaiwan and often drinks tea gongfu style with tea masters, she does not demand it of her reader, nor does she presume to educate on these forms. Her book is about the leaf, first and foremost.

Perhaps the highest praise I can personally give this book is that her immersive prose has convinced me to give a second chance to a tea I have for years thought I despised: rooibos. Her chapter on the farmer who grows Rare Tea Company’s Wild Rooibos is excellent and her description of the complex flavor of the infusion made me second guess my own convictions. And the conviction that I dislike rooibos has long been my most firmly-held. But upon tasting Rare Tea Company’s Wild Rooibos, prepared using the method in Henrietta’s book, I found a warm cup that rivaled the complexity of my favorite whiskies.

So those are my thoughts on this lovely book. It is certainly one I would recommend to any tea lover, or as a gift to anyone with even a passing interest in tea. I am already wondering who among my friends and family might receive a copy for the holidays.

NB: I purchased everything mentioned in this post with my own money and was provided no incentive to review or feature them.