Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Visit: T2 SoHo

Over the last year or so I'd walk down Prince street in SoHo and notice a jewel box of a store selling tea and teaware. The displays were always colorful and inviting. Every time I passed by I wanted to pop in, but I was always rushing somewhere. T2 is a successful global chain that started off small and grew impressively. They were recently purchased by Unilever and will undoubtedly be expanding even further. I first tried T2 a few years ago when my husband brought back a couple of teas from a business trip to Australia. This was back when they were an Australian chain. I remember we had a breakfast blend that was quite strong and flavorful. T2 is known for inventive blends but they also have a huge inventory of teas and teaware. I was recently invited for a tasting at the SoHo store and was happy to finally find a time for a visit.

The day I visited was chilly and dreary, the sky was thick and grey. One of those days when NYC broods and sulks. It was quite a contrast to walk inside a T2. The store is chock full of colorful, quirky tea displays with interesting items to see at every turn. I had fun looking at teapots and teacups of every size and shape. The vibrant hues reminded me of another popular tea chain, but the design and customer service is a bit different.

If you are curious about a tea you haven't tried, you can taste before you buy. It's one thing to observe and smell a tea, but without tasting it you are basically buying it blindly. I always appreciate the stores that brew up a taste to help you decide what to purchase. I tried the Yunnan golden tips, which is a malty and bright tea with a sweet raisin note. Was it better than Yunnan black teas I've had from my favorite vendors? Not exactly, but it is still a pleasing cup. I took home their Morning Red blend, which is a zippy blend of keemun and Assam. This tea is smooth with a hint of smoke and honey. I'm very picky with my morning tea, and this one wasn't as bright and bold as I'd like, but for me it's a great mid-morning or afternoon tea pick-me-up.

Yunnan Golden Tips

The T2 store is great for gifts, as the selection is vast and much of the tea comes festive in brightly patterned boxes. The teaware is all designed for T2, and they often add new designs. If you're purchasing a gift, they'll wrap everything up in cheerful paper. The array of colors and products can be a bit overwhelming, but everything is well organized and the staff is quite knowledgeable. There are some nice Mother's Day gift options I was tempted to pick up for my mom, since she's a fan of tea blends. The set called Love, Friendship & Tea comes with a fun cup and saucer, French Earl Grey, and a strainer (which is really too small to actually use). I think my mom would enjoy the experience of opening this pretty package, and I could see her using the tea with the cup and saucer daily. There is also a gift pack called Breakfast In Bed that has two breakfast teas in a trippy box reminiscent of a lava lamp. Having tea in bed sounds like an ideal way to start Mother's Day (hint, hint, Mr. Tea Happiness).

As I mentioned the tea selection is immense, and I was actually interested in trying some of the herbals. I'm not usually an herbal tisane gal, but there are a few with ingredients native to Australia that looked very interesting. I also took home a tisane comprised only of jasmine flowers, which I found intriguing. I've never seen this as a tisane before. I noticed other pure flowers as well, all of which would be fun to use for blending.

I was tempted by a 17-ounce stainless steel flask that looks quite rugged and perfect for my klutzy ways. It has a removable strainer and can be used for both hot and cold teas. You can bring the flask into the store every Friday and they'll fill it up with a tea for free. I certainly wouldn't say no to that.

T2 is a few blocks away from Harney & Sons, and not far from a few places where you can sit down and have afternoon tea. I'm glad to see that there is another tea buying option in the area, especially since Palais des Thés has sadly closed its doors. T2 may be owned by a tea giant, but I really enjoyed my experience in this vibrant store.

I have quite a few more teas to taste and review from T2, so stay tuned. Some may also be making an appearance at the Office Tea Club. Have you tried anything from T2? I'd love to know your feedback on the teas, and the store. Also, let me know if you've noticed any change in the tea quality after the Unilever ownership. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts since I don't have enough experience with them to compare.

Thank you to Jennine and T2 for showing me around the store and for all of the products.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Review: East Indian Tea & A Little More History

Today's review is the East Indian Tea from Oliver Pluff & Co. Before I gave it a taste, I asked owner Kyle Brown a little more about this tea, and he told me the East Indian tea is grown in Assam from tea gardens containing plants combined from wild-growing tea trees discovered by the British, and the finer Chinese tea tree varieties that they brought over. This is of course a tea that was imported into the American colonies. I enjoyed this little snippet from the package:
When the ship Britannia arrived in Charles Town in November, 1774 with seven chests of East Indian tea, Charles Town tea merchants were “induced” to destroy their own tea by breaking open the chests and dumping them overboard into the Cooper River, an event now known as the Charleston Tea Party.
The Charleston Tea Party was a protest of that infamous British tea tax, perhaps not the most famous protest, but still an important one for the record books. I read a little more about tea drinking in Charleston, and it turns out most of the tea brought into the city was smuggled in so the colonists could avoid the taxes. This smuggled tea was of course illegal. I found an interesting snipped about tea smuggling from my new favorite book A Social History of Tea, quoting a famous tea name I'm sure you will recognize:
In his Observations on the Tea & Window Act and on the Tea Trade, 1784, Richard Twining commented that "The smuggler has become so formidable a rival [to the East India Copmpany] that, upon the most moderate computation, they shared the Tea-trade equally between them; and according to some calculations, the smuggler had two thirds of it."
I could go on about tea smuggling but I'll save it for another post. Time to discuss the East Indian tea!
The dry leaves smell quite sweet with a malty, dry aroma of dried wheat. I also get a little bit of dried apricot. The combination gives me a sunny, bright feeling of relaxing in a meadow of late summer grass.

The wet leaves are again sweet and malty, with a bit of barley, honey. and roasted sweet potatoes.  
The infusion is quite bold, with a slight astringency. It is a little dry, but mellow, malty, and smooth. There is a lingering gentle malty flavor with a bit of astringency. The tea has an unexpected lightness to it.

I was surprised at the roundness of this tea. It is well balanced and smooth. It has a good amount of strength, as Assam does, but I was expecting it to be more astringent and punchy. It's a very pleasing tea, and I've had it almost every morning this week. It strong enough for sleepy-eyed mornings, but has a nice mellow finish that tames my anxious thoughts about the day ahead.  This is a good everyday drinking tea, and I of course love the history behind it.

Thank you to Oliver Pluff & Co for providing this tea for review!

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Review: Colonial Bohea by Oliver Pluff & Co

As you've noticed, I've been on a colonial American tea kick lately. To round out that obsession, I thought it would be appropriate to review Oliver Pluff & Co's Colonial Bohea Tea. Bohea (pronounced boo-hee- apparently I was pronouncing it wrong for a long time!) was the most popular tea in colonial American days. Bohea is a blend of black teas from the Wuyi mountains in Fujian, China. Some believe that the word bohea comes from a pronunciation of Wuyi. From the package:
It was so popular in colonial times that bohea became the common word for tea. It was imported in larger quantities than all other teas combined, and it was the majority of tea destroyed during tea tax protests in revolutionary America.

The dry leaves are dark, twisty and have a slightly ashen color. These leaves are super smoky, as if they've been hanging out around the campfire for a few hours. The aroma actually brings back memories of visiting a historic colonial house near where I grew up. It always had a smoky aroma, possibly from the kitchen cooking fires. I always imagine the pleasant smoky smell when I remember visiting that colonial house. This could be why I always imagined early American teas to have a smoky flavor. Of course, other colonial teas did not contain this flavor, but let's focus on today's tea!

The brewed tea is malty, with notes of dark fruits and, of course smoke. I think the maltiness tempers the smoke a little bit, making it smoother to drink. I enjoy a bit of smoky flavor in my tea, especially at breakfast. I'm not really sure why, but that's when I crave this flavor the most. This tea would work very well with a little milk and sweetener as it would tame the bold flavors. I tend to like black teas stronger than the seller suggests. With this tea, I added a little over a teaspoon per cup and found it to work well for my palate. I enjoyed this tea, and could see myself reaching for it in the morning or early afternoon. Or any time I'm cracking open an American history book!

I also have to point out that the Oliver Pluff & Co. graphics are great. The bohea tea tin has a political cartoon by Ben Franklin on the front. I think the use of historic imagery on the packaging is perfect for the teas inside. I also like they they are monochrome drawings, which help them stand out and gives the whole experience an antique feel. I enjoy the flavor and history behind this tea and can't wait to try the others that I have.

Thank you to Kyle of Oliver Pluff & Co for the tea! Stay tuned for reviews of their other teas in the coming weeks. To see my other posts about colonial American teas, check out the links here, and here.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Interview: Kyle Brown of Oliver Pluff & Company

I've recently become fascinated with Colonial American tea history.  You may have noticed my last two posts were about early NYC tea history, as well as the introduction of tea to the American colonies. During my research for these posts I came across a tea company that specializes in early American teas. I was so excited to learn I could actually taste the style of teas the colonists were drinking, although they may have prepared them a bit differently (they used the same water temperature for each tea, and sometimes boiled the leaves with the water). Oliver Pluff & Company sells early American blends and unique items such as wassail and cacao shell tea. I had so many questions for the company's founder Kyle Brown, that I decided to turn it into an interview.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Who Had The First Sip?

I always assumed tea was first consumed in Britain before ending up in the American colonies. It's honestly not something I wondered much about until I was doing a bit of research for last week's post, and came across a few lines stating the American colonies actually had tea before the British did. I was surprised to read this could be a possibility since it's not like tea drinking is an American pastime. But it turns out there are good reasons for this, which I'll get to in a bit.

It appears we may have had the first sip, and it all comes down to the Dutch. America sipped its first cups of tea through cargo from the Dutch East India company. From the very informative book A Social History of Tea:
It arrived at the settlement of New Amsterdam. Although there is no specific record of the first instance of tea consumption in America, it was being consumed in the settlement by the time Dutch East India Company Director, Peter Stuyvesant, arrived as governor in 1647. Early records show the custom of taking tea by the upper class of New Amsterdam proved equal to that of their native Holland. The tea tray, tea table, teapots, sugar bowl, silver spoons and strainer were the pride of the Dutch household in the New World.
The cost of tea was high and it was fashionable for the rich families of the time to take tea in the afternoon with a small meal. In 1664 the British took control of all the Dutch settlements in the New World, and tea continued to grow in popularity.

The East India company (not to be confused with he Dutch East India Company) brought tea to England, and tea was first documented in England in 1660, by Samuel Pepys who mentions his first cup of tea in his diary:
And afterwards I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before, and went away.
His entire diary entry for the day can be viewed here, if you're interested in reading it. So it seems to me from looking at the recorded history that Americans started drinking tea before the British. One of the teas consumed during colonial times is Bohea, which is a blend of black teas from from Wuyi mountains in Fujian. (the area was referred to as Bohea, which could be due to pronunciation).  Most resources seem to think bohea tea would have contained some smoky lapsang souchong. It was a blend of cheaper grade teas and the most popular type to drink. It was so popular that bohea also became a way to refer to tea in general. If you're curious about this tea, a few tea vendors sell their own bohea blends today. A quick google search will come up with a few options. I think I may have to try some. There were also green teas at this time such as hyson, singlo, and gunpowder. It would take a few blog posts to discuss the teas the American colonists consumed, but you can read all about them here.  I am curious to learn more about singlo in particular, since it's not a tea I've ever heard of before. But I'll save that for a future post, especially if I end up reading this book by Robert Fortune to learn more about this subject.

While researching my last post about tea gardens (and water pumps!), I learned that early tea drinking in America was equally as popular as it was in England. In the mid 18th Century Americans developed a love for tea and tea ware. From the ever useful A Social History of Tea:
As tea became an established custom in colonial American society, it was drunk in the morning, at home and socially in the afternoon or early evening. According to Benjamin Franklin, "at leas a Million of Americans drink Tea twice a Day." Another contemporary estimated that one third of the population drank tea twice a day.
Photo from

All this tea love was brought to a screeching halt for a few related reasons. The taxes placed on tea and the monopoly the East India company held on importing tea created gangs of tea smugglers who sold cheaper tea to the colonists. With the Stamp Act taxing goods including tea, colonists began to boycott British goods and tea sales declined. Americans started steeping 'Liberty Teas' which were essentially herbal replacements (I think a blog post on Liberty Teas is necessary!). The decline culminated in 1773 with of course, the Boston Tea Party.

"You say the price of my love's not a price that you're willing to pay. You cry in your tea which you hurl in the sea when you see me go by..." (When else can Hamilton The Musical get used in a tea post?)
There's much more to say on the matter, but to keep this post from getting too dense, I'll just say tea wasn't exactly fashionable after all of the political events of the time. If it weren't for good 'ol King George III, and the East India company, we may be drinking just as much tea as our friends across the pond. Thankfully today we have significantly fresher teas (can you imagine drinking teas that were transported and stored for months and months before making it to your cup?) and a huge variety available!

Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Bit of NYC Tea History

Prim and proper early Americans enjoying tea

New York City may not have the long history of other great cities of the world, but I l love walking through lower Manhattan, taking in the buildings that practically whisper their secrets. I often gravitate towards history books on the subject of old New York, but this post was actually inspired by a book on the history of a British tea store that I was recently perusing.  I was flipping through the book and read a mention about 'tea gardens' and how they were so popular in London in the early 1800s that Americans started creating them in NYC. Naturally I started researching these tea gardens, and learned a bit of interesting tea history more colorful than I would have ever anticipated. It's fun to take a small step away from the leaf and learn from the history books.

Tea gardens began in London and were a place for entertainment and refreshment.  They were areas to socialize, have a lovely (and socially acceptable) walk, and basically be seen by everyone in society. The landscaped gardens offered an oasis from the congestion and aroma of London in the 16th century. There was entertainment such as dancing,  performances, lawn bowling, even balloon rides.  Of course there was also tea and food. Mozart was even documented as performing at one of the popular tea gardens. It must have been quite the scene, to promenade in your finest dress and take tea in one of the manicured alcoves.  I find it interesting that all different social classes congregated in the tea gardens.

The gardens were given the name 'pleasure gardens' due to the immense amount of leisure activities available. Over 200 tea gardens existed in London between the early 16th to the 19th centuries! Not surprisingly, there is a book all about the London pleasure gardens, called The London Pleasure Gardens of the Eighteenth Century. So if you're interested in learning much more than I can explain, check it out. Given the popularity of the British tea gardens, they naturally spread to New York. In the 1700s tea gardens sprang up throughout lower Manhattan and were named after the popular British tea gardens such as Vauxhall and Ranelagh. They featured landscaped grounds, and elaborate fountains just like their British counterparts. The tea gardens became popular places not only for gathering and amusement, but also for courting since it was a socially acceptable place for women to socialize. In the summers there were also theater performances of all different kinds and many gardens known for their fireworks displays. Sounds a little bit like Disney World, but with more tea!

Image of Knapp's Tea-water pump

I fell down a bit of a rabbit hole researching tea gardens and ended up going as far back as the installation of water pumps around New York City, before the large upstate reservoir system was created in the late 1800s. Before the reservoirs were created, well water was iffy and best. This line from the book Chronicles of Old New York: Exploring Manhattan’s Landmark Neighborhoods explains the situation fairly well, "For nearly 200 years, New York's water was so putrid even horses wouldn't drink it, and drunkenness couldn't be reprimanded since so many people had to mix spirits with their water just to swallow it." There was some water pumped from springs in the area, and this water was obviously considered superior. I was excited to find out that the best pumps were called 'tea water pumps'. Of course, tea was very expensive at the time, so only the finest water could be used to brew up a satisfactory pot of tea. Water for tea (and I suppose for drinking and cooking) was sold from the pumps tapped into the spring water. You could purchase water at the pump for a few pence, or have 'tea water men' bring the water right to your door for a penny a gallon.

An outdoor area for recreation and gathering sprang up around one of the popular tea-water pumps, and became one of Manhattan's first parks. In the book I also learned the tea water caused quite a scandal. Just like today, shady folks figured out how to corrupt the system, "Tea Water was the only drinkable water in town, but was controlled by a group of thugs who made outrageous profits and whose wagons, waiting their turn to pass under the pump blocked traffic for a mile in all directions. Something had to be done about the water situation." The book goes on to document how none other than Aaron Burr ("Pardon me, are you Aaron Burr, sir?") proposed a clever, but corrupt plan to bring water from the tea water pumps to citizens through wooden pipes for an outrageous subscription fee. Of course, there is much more to say about the history of water circulation (and Aaron Burr) in NYC, but that's not for this blog post!

I apologize if this post made you a little bit sleepy, but I find NY tea-related history quite interesting! There is much more information about tea gardens in the book A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson. I hope to start learning more about the history behind tea. There is fascinating information on how tea culture spread throughout the countries of the world.  Now I just have to find the time to read every book I can get my hands on!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Harmony Of Tea + Fika

Wouldn't it be nice to take a break or two during the day, to have a convivial cup of tea with a few friends? Perhaps some homemade snacks to go with it? The Swedish tradition of fika is all about this beautiful ritual. Up until a few weeks ago, all I knew about fika was it involved coffee and snacks. I recently read an article about it in Edible Manhattan written by my tea-friend Rachel. Little did I know how important the tradition was, and how it incorporates dozens of delicious sweet and savory options. Fika is a moment to stop the day and enjoy coffee and snacks with friends. I love the idea behind fika. It's a time to pause, gather. The focus is on flavors, feelings, and emotions. There is so much about fika that can be seen in the art of enjoying tea. I'm amazed at just how many similarities there are.

For all of these reasons, fika and tea actually make a natural pairing. Rachel invited me to a special fika and tea pairing event she organized with illustrator and recipe creator Joanna Kindvall, and Unna Bakery founder Ulrika Pettersson. The event was to promote Joanna's book Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Rachel paired teas with various Unna Bakery sweet and savory fika options.

The food was all homemade and delicious. The tea pairings were perfect, my favorite being a Keemun Congfu tea from Joseph Wesley Tea paired with a ginger cracker topped with blue cheese. Yes, this snack sounds like the most bizarre combination. I'd never think to top a sweet ginger cracker with blue cheese! But it actually worked. The salty, funky cheese combined with the sweet gingery cracker was absolutely delicious. The keemun worked like a blanket for the palate- wrapping everything up in a cozy, chocolaty-smooth bundle. The tea calmed the tasty, chaotic ginger and cheese flavors and everything harmonized together.

I loved the food so much that I purchased the cookbook. I started reading through it and found  a few interesting things to share. Most importantly, in Sweden, "Life without fika is unthinkable." This reminds me of how I feel about tea. I can't get through a day without pausing for at least two different cups of tea. Fika is about maintaining a tradition, which is what tea is all about as well.

The book discusses the personal and emotional connection to fika, another subject comparable to tea. The food and coffee served during fika creates feelings and emotions in the participants. The same can of course be said for enjoying tea alone, or with a group of friends. It struck me that gathering together to enjoy tea and take a few minutes to recharge is something we do through my office tea club. The commitment to making time for a break in the day, to create a special moment to pause the routine.

The importance in the presentation is also directly related to the world of tea. For fika, beautiful plates, cups, saucers, and tablecloths should be used. Everything is presented in a beautiful way. This reminded me of creating a beautiful chaxi for tea!

Also, the use of quality ingredients, and hand made baked goods has a direct correlation to tea. In Fika, you show respect for the ingredients just as you would find quality tea leaves, and feel reverence for the tea- those that picked and processed it, and where the leaves were grown. Attention is made in preparing the fika, just as mindfulness is used to prepare tea.

Now when I make time for tea during the day, I think more deeply about the tradition and emotion behind the simple act of brewing tea and having a light snack. I was quite inspired by the tea and Swedish treat pairings served at the event, and I am excited to try my own combinations. I have a fresh perspective on my love for tea, and how to enjoy it with friends.