Review: Golden Snail (Whispering Pines Tea Company)

Hold the phone. Whispering Pines’ Golden Snail tea might be the most gorgeous I’ve ever seen. I tried to take pictures on my sub-par phone camera, but they really didn’t do the tea justice, so I’ll use a close-up from their website:


Yes, it actually looks like that. Bask in its fuzzy, curly glory!

It’s a Yunnan Providence black tea. Some of the best teas come out of China’s Yunnan Providence, a mountainous area with the perfect elevation for cultivating complex, flavorful teas. Golden Snail doesn’t disappoint.

High-quality teas usually have at least some tea buds. You can spot the buds by shimmery white or golden strands among the darker tea leaves. Tea buds are the very top of the leaf, the most tender part of the tea plant, and they must be harvested and processed with care. All those gold, fuzzy curls in the pictures above? Those are ALL tea buds.

This means it tastes a bit like Silver Needle (An all-bud white tea- my favorite is Teavana’s offering. It’s pricey, but for good reason.)…or more like Silver Needle’s bolder, darker cousin: Incredibly smooth and mellow, but with some wonderful black tea notes: sweet potato and chocolate, with aromas of biscuit, cocoa, and mineral. It has that a silky mouthfeel and almost no astringency. Plus it’s naturally sweet.

It is one of those teas that is a really fantastic experience from beginning to end: Admiring the loose leaves (plus the smell from the bag alone is amazing! You get that cocoa, biscuity smell right from the start), steeping it to its deep gold color, sipping it and appreciating the flavors, and (because I’m a nerd), admiring the steeped leaves afterwards.

Like all loose leaf teas, this tea holds up to multiple re-steeps. I have re-steeped it three times, and the flavors hold up well over steeps, although the character changes a bit with each steep.

Can you tell I’m kind of in love with this tea? It’s good stuff. Plus Whispering Pines is a pretty cool company in general. They’re a smaller, Michigan-based company that’s very connected with nature and their tea farmers, which I can majorly appreciate.

I only bought an ounce of this tea, so I’m going to try and make it last as long as possible…


Tea Review: Really Root Beer (Nelson’s Tea)

Oh, that’s right. I’m back from the grave! I’ve let my tea reviewing hobby fall by the wayside for a while, but I got inspiration to start reviewing again after getting the opportunity to sample some teas sent to me by Nelson’s Tea.


So many teas to review! This picture also features an exclusive view of my kitchen floor.

This is a smaller tea company that sells on their website, Etsy, and Amazon. They emphasize the health benefits of tea and offer a lot of flavored and “entry level” teas. This is definitely  I was intrigued by some of their unique flavors and offerings, and they had fair pricing – most of their teas run around $8/2 oz. After expressing my interest, they sent me a whopping SEVEN samples to try!


I decided to kick things off with their Really Root Beer tea, because A) I don’t think I’ve reviewed an herbal infusion on this blog yet, and B) I found this package of samples waiting for me after a long day  of work, so making a fresh glass of iced tea sounded perfect.





Here’s what the herbal blend looks like before steeping:


I spy star anise, fennel, and ginger! It also contains sassafras bark, sarsparilla root, birch bark, burdock root, dandelion root, licorice root, and flavoring.

Out of the package, it smelled exactly like root beer. I was very much impressed. It looks like a chai blend, but absent of cinnamon. I used twice the amount of tea to steep it so that I could pour it directly over ice without diluting the flavor.


After about 5-6 minutes of steeping, I poured over ice and drank! The licorice root is a natural sweetener, so this drink tastes lightly sweet by itself. It is very reminiscent of root beer, although a much lighter taste. It even nabbed that aftertaste that reminds me of vanilla and root beer floats. If you wanted to make it even more root beer-y, you could add a tsp of sugar, but it’s good on its own. I would definitely drink this with friends on a hot summer day.

I see a lot of teas that try to recreate the flavors of desserts or cocktails, but this is the first tea I’ve ever seen that tries (successfully, I’d say) to emulate root beer!

I would recommend this for those who enjoy adventurous tea and herbal blends, or who make and drink iced tea in the summer as religiously as I do.




Tea Review: Teavivre’s Premium Keemun vs. Adagio’s Keemun Concerto

On to the tasting of my second tea sample that the good folks at Teavivre sent me! I got a premium keemun to try from them, and I happened to have a similarly-priced keemun from Adagio to compare it to. Keemun is a rich, smooth black tea from the Anhui province in China.

The Anhui Province

The Anhui Province

I don’t usually drink much black teas, but a good keemun is a treat. Needless to say, I was eager to taste and compare these two! Let’s get started, shall we?

Adagio’s Keemun Concerto – $12/3 oz.

After steeping

Before steeping









Adagio’s Keemun Concerto looks impressive straight out the of the bag. The long, twisted strands have a lovely leaf-to-tip ratio (look at how pretty those golden tips look in the left picture!) and a nice, rich aroma. I steeped this tea at just under boiling temperature for 3 minutes. The result was a balanced, mellow cup. It’s a little bit flinty and earth, with almost a fruity aroma to it. It has a medium body with a clean finish- you don’t get that yucky, harsh tannin afterfeel in your mouth like you do with a lot of lower quality or oversteeped black teas. I don’t know if it’s supposed to have cocoa notes to it, but I definitely tasted some, which was a pleasant surprise. I was really delighted with its quality for the price!

Rating: 5/5 stars

Teavivre’s Premium Keemun Hao Ya– $15.90/3.5 oz

Before steeping

After steeping










Out of the bag, the Premium Keemun Hao Ya tea has an aroma that’s both malty and flowery- very pleasant! The leaves, however, look like a lower quality than the word “premium” would suggest. There are few tips to be seen, and the leaves are in smaller pieces and more broken up. This is a sign that the leaves were processed with a bit less care than a tea with longer twists of leaves.

Brewed up (to be consistent, I also brewed Teavivre’s keemun for 3 minutes with just under boiling water), the tea has an amber-red color, very similar to the color of Adagio’s keemun. The resulting aroma was flowery and malty. Taste-wise, I was disappointed. It has a sort of flat flavor, the maltiness of it feeling a bit one-note. It reminded me of an English breakfast tea, and not in a good way. There was a dry aftertaste that was a little unpleasant. Overall, Teavivre’s keemun turned out to be rather disappointing, especially compared to Adagio’s keemun that is similarly-priced and much higher in quality.

Rating: 2/5 stars


Well, I was disappointed with Teavivre’s keemun offering, but I still have three other teas to try from them, and I’m eager to give them a taste! Stay tuned.

Tea Review: Adagio Lapsang Souchong vs. Teavivre Lapsang Souchong

Ah, lapsang souchong. Like smoke in a glass. A campfire in a cup. The scotch of teas. Can you tell that I enjoy this type of tea?

Lapsang souchong is produced in the Fujian province of China, traditionally on Wuyi mountain. The leaves are smoke-dried over pine charcoal, which results in a very strong, smoky tea. For this reason, lapsang souchong is a divisive flavor- you may love it the first time, or you might need a few cups to enjoy it.

The good people at Teavivre were kind enough to send me a few tea samples to try, including lapsang souchong! I discovered Teavivre just recently- their website is fantastic! Along with their teas, they have lots of informative articles on tea types, traditions, and the teamaking process. You’ll find a wealth of information here. I’m also a big fan of how they list the steeping directions for both the western method and the traditional Chinese Gaiwan method.

I decided to compare Teavivre’s lapsang souchong to Adagio’s offering, which is at a similar price scale. I brewed both teas at 195 degrees Fahrenheit for 3 minutes, and a used a teaspoon of each tea per cup of water. Let the tea tasting begin!

Teavivre's lapsang souchong on the left and Adagio's on the right

On the left, Teavivre, on the right, Adagio


Teavivre’s lapsang souchong is grown on Wuyi Mountain. Fresh from the bag, Teavivre’s smoky smell is much more delicate than I had expected. When I poured out the leaves, I was pleased to see there was a mixture of leaves and the golden tips of the plant. Just by looking at the dry leaves, I knew I could expect a balanced flavor in the cup. The wet leaves have that tan color that signifies a good black tea, and you could probably get multiple flavorful infusions of this tea.


Before steeping

Before steeping

After steeping

After steeping









The flavor was indeed balanced, and rather lighter than the full-bodied smokiness I’m used to in a lapsang souchong. The smokiness is apparent when you smell your tea as you drink, and it has a light, lingering smoky finish. I like a lapsang souchong tea that kicks you in the pants, so this tea would be best suited for those who are new to the distinctive taste.

Rating: 3/5 stars

Price: 10.90/3.5 oz

Where you can buy it:



Whereas Teavivre’s lapsang is more subtle, Adagio’s fulfills that kick-in-pants quality that I enjoy. When you smell the dry leaves, you get a strong woodsy, smoky flavor, almost reminiscent of a meat jerky (remember how I said that this tea isn’t for everyone?). The dry leaves are a lower quality than Teavivre’s- they’re more chopped up, which is going to make the flavor less mellow and a bit harsher. The wet leaves are also telling- they’re a dark color, almost black. This isn’t to say it’s a BAD tea, just that it’s a lower quality than Teavivre.

Before steeping

Before steeping

After steeping

After steeping









The flavor, while not as balanced, has a fuller taste, the smokiness really coming through in the smell and the taste. I was surprised at that, considering that this tea brewed into a much lighter-colored brew. I had to double-check to make sure I was indeed tasting the Adagio lapsang! You really get transported to a campfire drinking this one, but I’m docking it a few stars for its quality.

Rating: 3/5 stars

Price: $8/3 oz

Where you can buy it:

I’m not done with Teavivre! I still have silver needle, keemun hao ya, tie guan yin Iron Goddess and luo chun to taste from them, so stay tuned!



So Moleskine sells a tea journal and it’s the BEST THING EVER.

I love journals and log books. I love making lists. Physically writing down records between the pages of a book seems to draw up more memories than creating a digital word document or an Excel spreadsheet, for whatever reason. I’ve kept a log of every book I’ve read since 2004, and it’s amazing to have ten years of reading history in a little Series of Unfortunate Events-themed blank book.

So you can imagine my excitement when I went into Teavana and saw that they sell a TEA JOURNAL. A MOLESKINE TEA JOURNAL. I bought the journal there and I don’t regret the purchase, but I since learned that you can get essentially the same journal from the Moleskine website for 7 bucks cheaper. The only difference in the Teavana-themed Perfectea Journal is the pretty orange cover and the Teavana-themed stickers in the back pocket. Fear not, though, there are stickers included in the plain black Moleskine version as well.

tea journal

Teavana Perfectea Journal


Moleskine Passions Tea Journal

What I love about this journal is that it strikes the perfect balance between structure and freedom. There are structured pages for tea tasting notes, website reviews, and catalogues of your own collection, along with informational pages on tea tradition, history, and steeping instructions. But there are plenty of blank pages and checklists as well for your own notes or categories, allowing you to turn the journal into whatever suits you best.

Some of the information inside includes:

  • Tea processing
  • Tea classification and grading
  • Types and varieties of teas
  • A pull-out timeline of the history of tea, from 2737 BC to 2010
  • Tea tasting vocabulary glossary (This has been the most helpful information to me. What’s the difference between “bakey” and “biscuity” tastes? This glossary is a handy reference.)
  • Brewing methods
  • Tea etiquette

The journal has four built-in bookmarks in different colors, which my organizational self went nutso over. There are also five tabs that divide out the main sections of the journal:

  • Tastings – This includes the tasting vocabulary and about 40 pages devoted to tea tasting. On each page, you can record info about the tea, including its price, country of origin, steeping instructions, and the date of your tasting. You can then fill out information on the liquor’s color, body, aromas, flavors, and other notes. The most interesting feature here is a spider-web graph with different flavor points that you can mark. This creates a visual map of the tea’s taste profile. I like using these tasting pages to work on honing my palate.
tasting page

The journal’s tasting section

  • Teatime! – This section includes information on making tea and some brief notes on tea etiquette in Chinese and British culture. There are pages that allow you to make preparation notes on different teas. I found this section a bit redundant, since there’s already places to record very similar information in the Tasting and My Collection sections, so I’ve been using it to write down tea blends I’ve experimented with (I’m doing this project that involves making and photographing a tea blend for each of the nine existing Sherlock episodes. OMG OMG. I can’t wait to share that project when I’m done.) There are also many pages where you can write down teatime-related recipes. Too many pages, some would say.
  • Places – This serves as a space to organize and make notes on physical tea places, including shops, tea rooms, and cafes. Just as with the Tastings, Web, and My Collection tabs, you have the option of giving each place a rating between 1 and 5 stars. There’s a handy space to write the opening hours of the shop in question, which I thought was a nice touch.
  • Web – This allows you to organize and keep notes on websites. You can mark whether it’s a website, e-shop, or blog. There’s space for a brief description and for any categories or tags that will be helpful for you. I like this idea- it’s a good physical companion to a bookmarks folder on my browser.
  • My Collection – This section has a page on tea storage (GOOD. YAY. SO IMPORTANT.), and then space to write notes on teas that you own. You can write about three teas per page, making it a handy collection of “blurbs” about your tea collection, including where you bought it from, your rating, and when you should drink it by. I also adore the little space where you can write the page number that will take you to a tasting page of the tea.
  • A peek at some of my journal's My Collections pages

    A peek at some of my journal’s My Collections pages

OH, THAT’S ANOTHER THING. You know how journals are kind of a mishmash of things, and it’s hard to keep them organized, even with built-in tabs? Well, all of these pages are NUMBERED, and there’s a freaking index in the back that you can fill out, making it an organized reference for your notes. This makes me so very very happy. Whoever designed the Moleskine Passions journals knew what log- and journal-keepers love and need

Beyond the pre-printed tabs are four extra blank tabs, containing lined pages, blank pages, and pages designed for making checklists. Most excellent.

If you can’t tell, I’m a big fan of this product. If you like keeping a physical record of your teas, this is one of the best options out there.

How to Brew the Perfect Pu’erh

The first time I had a pu erh tea, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. It’s an interesting tea, and a bit of an anomaly, for several reasons:

  1. It’s the only tea (at least to my knowledge) in which letting it get old can be a good thing. You can age pu erh like wine, and, like wine, aging the pu erh brings out a more mature, complex flavor. Fascinating, right?
  2. It doesn’t grow bitter from oversteeping like most other teas. You can steep this for a few seconds or for several minutes and it won’t taste weak or bitter. 
  3. It can be pressed into cakes or bricks to be sold. This is a tradition that dates back to the days of trade caravans.

The first time I tasted pu erh, I was amazed by its dark, almost opaque liquor and its bold, earthy taste. But it had this almost…fishy note to it that was strange. Well, there was a reason it had tasted fishy. I had brewed it wrong.

The secret to a good cup of pu erh is to rinse the leaves before you actually brew it. Rinsing is very simple. If you’re making a Pu’erh in a glass or a ceramic pot (note to self: write a blog entry on Yixing clay pots. Or 12 entries.), just put your leaves in the pot or mug or Gaiwan, then put in enough boiling water to cover the leaves. Let this sit for a 2 or 3 seconds, then dump out the hot water. You might need to do a second rinse. This will clean the leaves and it will ensure that the tea you brew actually tastes like the pu erh leaves, instead of whatever stuff clung to the leaves during its aging process. You’ll get more of the pure tea taste after a good rinse.

You also don’t have to steep pu erh for nearly as long as I originally thought. While some websites said to let it steep for 5 minutes or more, others said to steep it for 20 to 30 seconds! This depends on the vessel you brew it in, and, most likely, your personal taste. The good thing about pu erh is, you can’t really mess it up. That is, you can’t brew it to the point of it tasting bitter and undrinkable, although certainly there are long traditions on the best way to make a cup of pu erh.

But the cardinal rule to pu erhs to come away with is to rinse before you infuse!

high tea | the house of herbs and roses, dural

Sketch That

Another high tea! And this one very different from the Japanese style one at Azuma – mainly because it was a bit more traditional. So from the name, this location sounds like a really hippy dippy sort of place – where they’d sell vegan food and herbal teas. However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the eating area was lovely – with a classic interior – dark wooden furniture, prints on the walls, and large mirrors to give the illusion of more space.

Since we were there for a birthday, they set up a table in a small function room – already arrayed with cutlery and china. The china is really pretty as well – makes you feel fancy.

There is an extensive selection of tea – ranging from fruit infused to the more traditional. They have quite fun names as well ‘congo bongo’, ‘cha cha chai’ and ‘once…

View original post 471 more words

At a Glance: Where to Get Tea in Iowa City

At first glance Iowa doesn’t seem to have much to offer as far as teas go. Midwesterners rely on their coffee as per tradition. But in the more urban areas (since it’s Iowa I’m using “urban” in a loose sense), shops are beginning to offer more varieties of teas, loose and bagged.


Photo courtesy of

Leaf Kitchen is your best option if you want a nice British afternoon tea. Leaf Kitchen offers great breakfast and lunch options, and they have a hefty list of teas on their menu, including one with rose that’s really nice. With a reservation, you can do a full afternoon tea with scones, finger sandwiches, a mini-cake, a truffle and a pot of tea. They also do a British cream with scones, clotted cream, jam and a pot of tea.


The Java House is the most popular coffee shop in Iowa City, with three city locations and three locations in the university hospital. They sell tea paraphernalia at the main downtown store, including several kinds of teapots (with a couple of cast iron offerings!), bamboo tea scoops, and handmade mugs.

The tea selection they have to offer is good, too. You can get a 2-cup pot of mate, silver needle, rooibos, English breakfast, Iron Goddess and more.

This ends up being tragic, because they serve the tea to you in a tea house pot still steeping. This is fine with herbal teas like rooibos and mate, which can sit in water forever and taste fine, but if you order a green, white or black tea, there’s a good chance your tea could already be bitter and over-steeped by the time it’s handed over to you. Then you’re left to try to pick out the metal basket with your fingers without scorching them and pray that they didn’t burn your leaves. My tea has always tasted over-steeped and awful when I’ve gone here. It’s a damn shame, because Java House treats their beans with such respect. I wish camellia sinensis got the same kind of treatment there.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

Which is why I’m glad there are coffee shops like High Ground Cafe. They can brew up a damn good cappuccino but also have a wide variety of Numi tea to offer and serve it up well. Their Ti Kuan Yin is served loose in a pitcher, and you just pour the tea over a mesh filter and into your mug when it’s steeped to your liking. Unlike the Java House, they serve the tea to you at the right temperature and right away so you can control the steep time and ensure that your tea isn’t bitter and undrinkable.

They also give you the choice between loose or bagged teas. Their bagged teas are better than the run of the mill offerings. There are several pu erhs, as well as savory herbal teas that taste like a warming broth if you add a little salt to them.

They also offering a flowering tea, which you can steep for several pots. It’s ideal for a long sit-in with an essay assignment or a good book.


Photo courtesy of

Prairie Lights Bookstore is an Iowa City institution, and it also boosts a nice cafe upstairs. They have about 20 different kinds of Rishi organic teas and serve them up in adorably mismatched teapots with little glass teacups on a tray. Alas, the cafe at Prairie Lights can fall prey to the same problem The Java House has. The strainer is in the teapot, so unless you pick it out precariously, your second and third cups of tea will be unbearably bitter unless you are guzzling that tea down your throat. And who wants to do that after you’ve been book browsing and found a nice stack to sift through as you sip your tea?


I guess my takeaway from this little excursion from Iowa City’s tea vendors is that it doesn’t matter what quality of tea you serve if you don’t prepare it right! If you’re shelling out for a pot of silver needle tea, you want it to taste good. Sure, it’s not that hard to get a fork or a knife and pry the little metal basket out of your teapot, but it can feel ridiculous when you just want to relax with your pot of tea. Still, the tea options are growing. The fact that I can walk into a coffee shop and order a pu erh or a Ti Kuan Yin and not get a funny look is a sign that even the Midwest is starting to get interested in the world of tea!



Cha Cha Cha! : A Three Tea Review

For a while, green tea was green tea for me. Then I tried some gyokuro, a high-grade Japanese green tea, and it was like seeing a whole new universe. I didn’t know green tea could have such a strong, oceanic flavor to it. Since then I’ve been hooked on Japanese green teas.

Why do Japanese green teas taste different from Chinese greens? It’s mainly due to the production. The Chinese method of tea production often involves drying the leaves in a wok. This gives the tea a nuttier, sometimes toasty or smoky flavor. The Japanese generally steam their tea leaves, which gives it a fresher vegetal taste. Both varieties are good for different moods or tastes.

I decided to pull out and profile the three Japanese teas currently in my collection. They’re all very distinct from each other. Let us compare and contrast!

I brewed up a cup each of kukicha, hojicha, and genmaicha, three unique Japanese teas. Let’s take a look at each one:


Kukicha before steeping

Kukicha before steeping

Kukicha translates to “twig tea.” It’s made up of the stems, stalks and twigs, and it usually comes from the production of sencha or matcha. At first this might sound like it’s the haggis of tea world, using the thrown-off parts of the tea plant out of sheer pragmatism. But actually, it’s really delicious and good for several steeps! It’s also unique in that it has very little caffeine in it. I’m presuming this is because the leaf isn’t involved in kukicha.

Kukicha after steeping

Kukicha after steeping




The Tasting: I got my kukicha from one of the few physical Adagio tea shops when I was in Chicago. I had only heard of it before, but the smell was too good to pass up. Pre-steeped kukicha has a bright, vegetal aroma to it. My immediate thought was, “It’s like gyokuro’s kooky cousin.” (Get it? Kooky-cha? I’ll stop now.)

Before steeping it looks almost like lemongrass, since, like that plant, it’s mostly twigs and stems. When steeped, the liquor is a clear yellow. I love its bright, refreshing taste. It’s one of those teas that you can guzzle right up because it’s so refreshing, and you don’t get any of that tannin mouthfeel on your tongue or teeth. I read somewhere that the Japanese sometimes mix kukicha in with fruit juice to make a drink for kids. I will have to experiment with that this summer–I think the bright, vegetal notes would go really well with some sweet fruit notes. YUM.


Fun to say and fun to drink! Hojicha is a bancha tea. Bancha is produced in the late summer-early fall harvest. To make hojicha, the bancha leaves are roasted for a few minutes. This strips the leaves of a lot of their health properties, but it gives the leaves a honeyed taste, sort of like hazelnuts. It also turns the leaves a brassy color, making it a rather unusual looking and tasting green tea.

The Tasting: This hojicha is another Adagio tea–I nabbed a free sample of it with another tea purchase, and I’m glad I did. You can definitely smell the toasted quality before you steep hojicha. When steeped, the liquor is amber with almost a pinkish tinge to it. I like the light toastiness in the flavor and its rounder, sweeter taste. You get a little bit of that vegetal taste from the green tea in there as well, but it’s completely different from a straight up Japanese green tea.

Hojicha before steeping

Hojicha before steeping

Hojicha after steeping

Hojicha after steeping










Genmaicha was the first Japanese tea I had that wasn’t just a “plain” green tea. It was originally a peasant’s tea. Poor Japanese tea drinkers would add toasted brown rice to their tea leaves to make the tea last longer. And as it turns out, toasted rice and green tea is a pretty delicious combination. Now it’s one of the most established teas of Japan, made with either sencha or bancha leaf.


Genmaicha after steeping


Genmaicha before steeping







 The Tasting: I got my genmaicha from the bulk section at my local co-op grocery, so it’s not particularly high-grade, but it was still pretty tasty. Genmaicha has this really savory aroma from the rice. When you steep it, the result of this combo is a clean-tasting tea with a hint of toasty nuttiness from the rice. It’s an strange tea, and it might not be up everyone’s alley, but I’m a huge fan. It has the unusual distinction of being both really refreshing and really warming and comforting. The liquor of genmaicha is a clear olive-green, and as you drink the steamed rice smell hits your nose and makes you feel like you’re in the middle of a warm kitchen with stir fry on the stove.

Out of the three of these, do I have a favorite? Tough call. They are all tasty and have different merits depending on what you’re in the mood for. So, I recommend to you:

  • Have a cup of kukicha when you want something bright and refreshing. Try it iced on a summer day for a tasty way of hydrating.
  • Make some hojicha when you want a comforting, toasty drink. Wrap your hands around a mug of it as you pull a blanket around you and read a book.
  • Brew up some genmaicha if you want a satisfying, clean-tasting companion to your savory or sweet food.