Thursday, September 24, 2015

Tea in London Part 3: Postcard Teas

My time in London was extremely limited, and I ended up only visiting a couple of tea shops. I had heard many good things about Postcard Teas, and my husband had brought back a few of their delicious teas from a previous trip, so I put it on the top of my list. They source teas very carefully, and work with small farms. From their website
We work with farms that produce small tea in 6 countries across Asia because we believe small producers of less than 15 acres are better for people, places, and planet than the larger producers who supply 99% of all the tea sold in the West including the teas sold as rare, fairly traded or beneficial to the environment. As with provenance, we are the first tea company in the world to sell tea exclusively from small farms.
Walking down the quiet little street to the shop, you feel as if you are in a charmed place. The day was misty and the exterior looked, well, like a postcard. It was exactly as I had imagined.

The small shop is tidy, with stunning Asian tea ware and a wall of their beautifully packaged teas. There was only one other couple in the shop, and they appeared to be tasting and discussing with the woman on staff. There also a back area for prep. When I walked in I noticed the salesperson was busy with the couple, so I started perusing the tea canisters. They also have a clever Tea Postcard program where you can pick the tea postcard (filled with a small amount of tea), write a message and send it anywhere in the world. I love this idea.

In the US, the salespeople are quick to be overly cheerful and helpful. I often find it annoying because I like to take my time and not get (cheerfully) shouted at. I was happy to relax and browse in the shop. Once the couple left, the salesperson went to the back, and was chatting with someone there. I did have a few questions and had to wait quite awhile until she came back. When she did we had a nice conversation about the teas, and I asked what she'd recommend (special oolongs), and what blends they had created just for the store. She told me that if I purchased a tea, I could get a tasting for free. I knew I was going to take some teas home, so I selected an oolong that looked interesting, and was happy to taste it. While I was sipping my tea I sat at the tea bar and admired the shop. I was left alone to contemplate my tea, which was quite peaceful. I enjoyed sipping and looking out the window to admire the rain-reflected cobblestones.

This would have been a very pleasant experience if the employees in the back hadn't started their conversation. They started mocking the previous people in the store, poking fun at their lack of tea knowledge. I was completely taken by surprise. They went on about it for quite some time. I was wondering what they'd say about me when I left. I've noticed a good amount of online tea bullying lately, and the conversation in the shop saddened me. I just don't understand why there are so many people in the tea world that think so much of themselves that they have to belittle others. For me, tea is about the experience just as much as the quality and flavor. Just because someone doesn't know as much as you, it doesn't mean they don't have as much enthusiasm or interest in the subject. I'm sure the employees in the shop were very knowledgeable and experienced. But clearly they don't care about their customers.

After awhile someone came out and I asked to pay for my tea. He rung up my sale and bagged my tea without saying a word. I started second-guessing myself until I realized that no matter where you are, there is no reason for poking fun at others. It's not only unprofessional, but it's cruel.

I have very mixed emotions about my visit. I was so taken with the store and their high-quality teas that I still don't know what to think about my experience. As much as I don't want to promote a place with such a negative attitude towards its customers, I'd recommend the store for the teas and quaint atmosphere. I also assume (and hope) I had a unique experience. Perhaps I'll say 'proceed with caution'.

I have one more tea shop to cover, so next week will be the final installment of the Tea in London series. I guess this means I need to go back soon!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

A Glimpse of Afternoon Tea in London- Pt. 2: Sketch


It's finally time to discuss our second afternoon tea experience in London, sketch. For a little background and info on our first afternoon tea, check out my previous post. As I mentioned, I wanted our second experience to be unique, and boy did I pick the right place!

sketch is artistic, bizarre, surreal. An instagramer's dream come true. Afternoon Tea is served in a room separate from the restaurant, and is very hard to describe. Pink is the dominant color, black and white portraits (sketches, I assume) line the walls. It's a mix of muppets, art-deco, Rene Magritte, Stanley Kubrick, and Sardi's restaurant in NYC. I've never said all of those things in a sentence before, but it's what comes to mind when I think of that room.

The place is so visually interesting I took more pictures of the decor and tea ware than anything else. Each sketch on the wall is different, and demands attention. The tea ware have peculiar words written on them, and beg to be photographed. The room is just and flocked. I realized later that I didn't get many shots of the food. It was mostly due to focusing on the details of the place, but also because it was just 'food'. This room seems to demand something more.

Service was attentive, and we were quickly given menus with tea and champagne choices. It was very tempting to have a few glasses of pink bubbly in this setting, but we decided to save the alcohol for later in the day. The tea menu has a nice selection, although heavy on flavored teas. I chose a 2nd flush Darjeeling and was very satisfied with the choice. It was bright, floral and strong, a tea that held up well to the many different colors and flavors of the afternoon.

After having a delicious meal at Claridge's, the food at Sketch didn't quite hold up. It was still very good, and the quail egg and caviar sandwich was a standout. I also enjoyed a mozarella and pesto 'panini' that was heavy on the herbaceous pesto. I had room for a few bites of the sweets, and they were pleasant, but nothing jumped out. I think part of the problem is that I asked for sweets without walnuts but I think the server thought this meant all types of nuts. I was given a few sad skewers of fruit instead of some of the pastries. The food and sweets were quite fine, but they did not match the unique feel of the room and tea ware. I couldn't get enough of this pink, fuzzy place.

Just when I thought things couldn't get any more peculiar, I decided to visit the loo. As I climbed a space-aged staircase I stopped short to take in the view. I think it's safe to say I've never seen another bathroom quite like it. It was as if I'd landed on a Dr. Who set designed by Stanley Kubrick with a 1960s atomic age aesthetic. Toilet 'pods' grew out of the floor and once inside, felt strangely peaceful. Nature sounds were piped in, and it was oddly secure and relaxing. The bathroom area is so disorienting that there is an attendant making sure the women and the men end up going to the appropriate side.

Loo in space!

If you are planning a trip to London I'd definitely recommend trying out sketch for afternoon tea. The tea is very good and food is certainly acceptable. But come for the pink room lined with sketches. You won't forget it!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Interview: Chris and Anne of Beacon Hill Tea Company

I'm happy to present this week's interview with Chris and Anne from Beacon Hill Tea Company. They are a new subscription based tea company with cheerful packaging and the lighthearted, simple message, 'don't worry, steep happy'. I was interested to find out what it's like to start a tea subscription service since it's a very competitive market. Read below to learn more about what they had to say.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Tasting Grand Cru Teas at Palais Des Thés

I recently had the pleasure of attending a tasting of 'Grand Cru' teas at Palais Des Thés SoHo. I felt fortunate to have the opportunity to relax, sip, and chat about everything tea. In the early evening the store is quiet and calm, with just the hiss of the electric kettle and clink of teaware to be heard. After a busy day of noise and emotions this was a most welcome respite. The gentleman running the tasting was knowledgeable, but also laid back and cheerful. I was amazed at how creative and spot-on his tasting notes were. We tasted four 'Grand Cru' seasonal teas that are fresh and dynamic. These teas are considered 'the best' and have a price to match. The quality of these teas certainly help justify the price.

We started with Aiguilles d'Argent, a silver needles white tea. This tea needs a longer steep than the rest, brewing for 8-10 minutes at 160 degrees. This tea is comprised of just buds tasted delicate and sweet. It had a clean musky flavor with notes of chestnuts and honey. Subtle, and clean. Many people think white teas are low in caffeine because of the subtle flavor and light appearance. However, this is incorrect. The buds have much more caffeine than the leaves, so keep that in mind if you are looking for something 'light'.

Our next tea was Ryokucha Midori, a Japanese sencha. If you could bottle up the fresh sea air and steep it into a tea, this would be the result. A cooked spinach and seaweed flavor that feels very full on the palate. There was a slight bitter finish that I enjoyed, which played off the vegetal, salty flavors. I could almost feel the sand between my toes as I sipped the briny tea.
I love that this tea means 'tea of the Samurai', as it was originally reserved for the Japanese Samurais. It certainly gives it a more 'grand cru' feel. This tea should be steeped at 130 degrees, for 1-3 minutes.

The next tea was Feng Huang Dan Cong Special. (Special Phoenix oolong tea) The leaves are long and twisted like dragon tails. I imagine a bowl full of dragon tails steeping into a magic potion. This tea would be a lovely pick for the upcoming autumn weather. It is a little bit woodsy, a bit spicy, floral and sweet. There is also a nice hint of citrus. It matches well with cool weather, crunchy technicolor leaves, and picking fresh apples. This tea is from older and bigger leaves, so the caffeine content is a bit lower. It should be brewed at 195 degrees for 4-6 minutes.

The final tea was my most favorite, and staggeringly expensive. Jukro, a Korean black tea is entirely plucked and processed by hand. The bold, strong flavor of cocoa was an amazing sensation. Rich, a little sweet, a bit acidic. The pleasant subtle sweetness helps bring this to more of a chocolaty baked good or chocolate bar flavor, and not to bitter cacao nib territory. "Burnt Brownie" is the term that our tea connoisseur gave, and I had to gasp out loud- it was the perfect description. It truly does taste like the edges of a brownie- the parts that get a little toasty, burnt and caramelized. My favorite part. This tea is more of an investment than most, at $37 for an ounce.

 All of these teas are quite expensive, but as I always like to point out, you still get a good value per cup. These teas can also be steeped multiple times, which also helps to bring the cost down. The 'grand cru' designation is completely one created by Palais Des Thes, but they are are still high quality teas.

I was definitely buzzing and a little tea drunk by the end of the flavorful flight of teas. Thank you to Palais Des Thés for this unique opportunity!

Monday, August 31, 2015

A Glimpse of Afternoon Tea in London- Pt. 1: Claridge's

My husband and I had a quick 3-day trip to London a couple of weeks ago, and I crammed in as much tea-sightseeing as possible. I had a super long list of places to visit and didn't get to hit that many. But the places I did go to were quite memorable. I had two afternoon teas, and visited two tea shops. I was going to post about my entire experience here, but it may be a bit too much reading and an overabundance of photos. Today's post is about our first afternoon tea adventure.

I've had many afternoon tea experiences in NYC (I am trying to write a large post on all of those, it's taking some time!), so I wanted to do two different types while in London- one very traditional, and one more unique. After asking every London tea blogger I know, I decided to visit Claridge's (very traditional) and Sketch (unique is a bit of an understatement for this place!).

I hadn't been to London in years, and forgot how every street has something interesting to look at. History swirls in the air, and you can't walk more than a few steps without seeing something fascinating. Some may say this about NYC, but London beats it by lightyears. We stayed in the Mayfair neighborhood which itself is quite lavish, but we still felt very posh walking up to Claridge's hotel. It's a historic building with perfectly manicured flowers. Inside the decor is dripping with art deco flourishes, and tea is taken in a dining room fit for Ladies and Lords.

Live music greets your ears while your eyes soak up the grand decor. All of the tableware is designed with their iconic stripes. It may sound dull but it's deco at it's simplest and most beautiful, especially within the extravagant room. I was expecting stoic, stuffy service, but I was pleasantly surprised. Our server was of course formal, but cheerful and even a little bit friendly. It was just the right combination for the surroundings and the tourist-heavy crowd.

Selecting the tea was the hardest part of the day. Claridge's has an extensive tea menu, and I couldn't decide what to choose. Some of you may know I lean towards black teas for afternoon tea because the straightforward brisk flavors pair well with both sweet and savory. I finally settled on a blend that was made just for them. The Claridge's blend is, "a bespoke blend created exclusively for Afternoon Tea at Claridge's. The blend has a unique depth of flavour that combines the power of an English Breakfast Tea with a satisfying complexity. The flavour is rich and aromatic with a deep, malty finish. Perfect served without milk, partnered by a fresh warm scone." This menu description is quite accurate. I was happy to see they didn't recommend milk for this blend, as I usually don't add any to most of the black teas I drink.

We began with the tea, and I was amazed by the very small teapots. Shouldn't such an opulent place present enormous pots of tea? I was also surprised to watch the server prepare the tea. He added the hot water from a larger pot, waited about 30-60 seconds, and then poured. When I asked about this method he replied that it is the process they use at Claridges so the tea does not sit in the pot and get bitter or cold. You are given a fresh cup of tea as soon as your last has been finished. This led to very attentive service, and remarkably delicious tea. The tea was perfectly steeped, which surprised me given how quickly it was prepared. It reminded me of a gongfu preparation where a larger amount of leaf is used for a smaller yield. I had quite a few cups steeped with the same leaves, and it held flavor and strength throughout.

Once the first few sips of tea were enjoyed, our savories were whisked over to the table. The choices were very traditional, but with an extra dose of luxury. The smoked salmon was fresh flaky fish, not the preserved stuff you often see. I'm not usually a huge fan of fresh salmon, but I finished every flake-it was flavorful and delicate. The ham sandwich was one of the most savory examples I've had. The egg salad consisted of duck eggs carefully and gently prepared. Everything was full of flavor and freshness. The scones came next, and were flaky and light. I couldn't get enough of their house-made jam, or the clotted cream. Delicious.

Needless to say we were absolutely stuffed by the time the sweets arrived. The few bites I had were very nice, but nothing unique or particularly outstanding. Still good though. We had to box up most of them, and enjoyed them a bit the next day.

Sweets (in the pink stripes) and our leftovers in posh boxes

As in many fine dining establishments, we were given a package of sweets to take home with us. I find this is always a nice way to end a meal and remember it for days to come.  Afternoon tea here is not a cheap affair. But it is an afternoon steeped in historic luxury. It feels like a special occasion, and I'm thrilled to have experienced it. 

Friday, August 28, 2015

Tasting: Imara Organic Black Tea from Majani Tea

A photo posted by sara shacket (@tea_happiness) on

Today's review is for Imara, a Kenyan black tea from Majani. Founded in 2012 by the son of a Kenyan tea farmer, the company sells organic, substantially grown teas. When I first opened the box, I was greeted with cheerful brightly colored birds on the packaging. They are a fun combination of beautiful and adorable. It turns out that each tea gets its own bird. You can learn more about the birds here.

The dry leaves are raisin-y sweet and toasty. The brewed tea has quite a bit of briskness and strength which makes it nice for a morning tea. I was recently in London and it reminds me of the hearty breakfast teas found just about everywhere. This tea has a nice round toasty flavor with hints of sweet caramel. It has a little bit of astringency as well, which is something I don't mind.

I like my teas bold and strong, so I'm glad to have this one in my cabinet. It is perfect with milk and sweetener, or you can take it straight up if you like a strong tea. This would be a good every-day drinking tea in the morning or early afternoon. It would hold up very nicely to ice as well. I'm curious to try cold-brewing it to see what other flavors can be drawn out.

Thank you Majani for the tea! I have two more varieties to try. Have a good weekend everyone!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Steep Thoughts: Happiness of Tea

Lately I've been thinking about how much there is to learn about tea. Tea education is a beautifully infinite thing. No one can truly know everything about it. There are those that can dazzle with their tea knowledge, and while I strive to be well educated, right now I'm happy with my quiet feelings for tea. There are those that can taste every little nuanced flavor and liken it to the most esoteric ingredient. I know what I like, and I like trying everything. I know what I don't like, but I still want to try it all. I drink and feel, and love, and express. Words flow onto the page when I think about the flavors and sensations.

Tea gives me an opportunity to focus on myself, focus on how it feels to prepare it, to drink it. To meet others that find solace in the same diverse beverage is a a unique kindred experience. Tea people immediately share a special bond. There has been some frustration in my world recently, and having the opportunity to escape by sipping and talking tea has been a huge comfort. A spiritual diversion. After a cup of tea, things look brighter, more vivid, more hopeful.

I often over-steep or under-steep tea in my gaiwan, but it's a learning process. I can't froth my matcha that well, but I'll keep trying. In the meantime, I'll slurp it up with a smile on my face. I enjoy sharing my love for tea with others, even if I have to check my notes before we discuss. I may not remember all the processing steps in a particular tea, but I'm happy to share a cup with you, and we can learn about it together. My young daughter has taken an interest in tea. She can identify the basic types, and loves tasting it. I'm proud of her, but happier that it brings us together. We taste tea, and then end up discussing something completely unrelated and more important. The natural flow of togetherness. A few co-workers and I have been gathering to taste teas, learn, and converse. The curiosity, and camaraderie helps strengthen us. It's a time to relax and enjoy the group dynamic.

Of course, knowledge is key to producing, processing, selling and sipping tea. Educating yourself is important, and so is respecting how others feel. The journey of tea education should be one of happy discovery, not shame or frustration. There are many loving people involved in the tea community, and they people help bring joy to the world. However you come to tea, whatever you like about it, it's right. As long as it is touching your life and you are enjoying yourself, it's right.