Nick Martin on Tea
Table of Contents
If you know me, odds are good you know that I drink a lot of tea. A
number of people have asked about my preferences, so I've decided to
publish them online. This page is based on a log I have been keeping of
my tea tastings, and I'll be expanding it as I try more teas. I've done a
broad study over all of tea space, but I am only now going in depth into
various specific teas. In many ways, this page is as much for me as for
the reader. It serves as a central point for me to keep my notes on what
teas I've tried and what I think of them. As such, it is always a work
in progress. Also, I would really appreciate any feedback you would care
to give. Be it spelling or grammar corrections, or suggestions of new
teas to try. Feel free to drop me an email at nim+tea at nimlabs dot org.
It is hard to describe the taste of tea. There is a standard
vocabulary, but words like "bright", "malty", "flowery", and
"chocolatey" only seem to make sense to people who have tasted a lot of
tea. That said, I've found such descriptions interesting and useful, so
I will include some here.
NOTE: I have not followed the ISO relevant specifications (ISO
3103:1980, ISO 1839:1980) during my tea sampling. See the references for a complete list of ISO TC34/SC8
The first mistake most people make with regards to tea to assume that
the tea bags they buy in a grocery store contain tea. This is only true
in the most technical sense. Tea bags tend to contain the absolute
lowest grade tea available on the market. Thus, they brew terrible
If you are at all serious about tea, the first thing you have to do
is purchase real tea. Real tea comes in "loose leaf" form, meaning you
get a pile of dried tea leaves in a tin as opposed to crumbled up and
powdered leaf bits from the floor of a processing plant.
I generally buy tea online from
Upton Tea Importers and
Specialteas. Both have excellent webpages, easy online ordering, and
a great selection. There are many other perfectly good tea importers online and
in meat space, often with very similar stock.
I also like to visit Teance and
The Imperial Tea Court,
although they tend to charge a lot more than the online vendors.
Tea is dried leaves from the plant Camellia sinensis. As the
tea is dried, it is sometimes oxidized. "Green", "Oolong", and "Black"
teas differ only in their level of oxidization. Black tea is fully
oxidized, Green tea is not at all oxidized and Oolong is somewhere in
the middle. More information on the process of tea preparation is
contained in several of the references.
Most of the tea documented here is "Single Estate Tea". This means
that the entire batch of comes from one grower. When tea from multiple
growers is blended together or multiple types of tea are mixed it is
called "Blended Tea". When people add random crap to tea it is "Flavored
Tea". The flavoring agent can be items that are added to the tea during
drying and removed later, or it can be essential oils that remain in the
When I was first starting to explore tea, I was a big fan of random
stuff in my tea. I grew out of that. With some exceptions (Chai, Earl
Grey, Jasmine, etc.), I and most other serious tea drinkers spurn froofy
There are several blended teas that I find worth while. However, most
blended teas use lower quality ingredients, which detracts from the
A tea's "grade" is indicated using an antiquated system in which lots
of silly letters are tacked on after the tea's name. A more detailed
description is contained in the reference section,
but the only really important things to know about the silly letters
- Don't bother with "dust" and "fannings". These are tea bag grades.
- BOP stands for "Broken Orange Pekoe", and means that the leaves have
been broken down into smaller parts. This type of tea is cheap and
will infuse very quickly. I generally steer clear of it.
- Anything ending in FOP ("Flowery Orange Pekoe") is whole leaves.
More letters may be tacked on in front of FOP to make it look more
impressive. This occasionally corresponds to higher quality tea.
The most important part of brewing tea is to use water of an appropriate
temperature for the type of tea you are brewing. I cannot stress this enough.
Black tea wants to be brewed in boiling water (212°F). When you
pour boiling water into a ceramic mug, a lot of heat leaves the water
and enters the cup, meaning the tea is brewed at a temperature that is
too cool. The solution: pour boiling water into the mug to pre-warm
it. When the mug is warm, discard the water and brew your tea.
Green tea wants to brewed at a much lower temperature. About
180°F is typical. Some greens are more sensitive to temperature than
others. You really, really want to respect this, otherwise you will end
up with bitter tea.
Oolongs are usually brewed between 180 and 200°F.
Darjeeling The word most people use for the flavor of
Darjeeling is "astringent." Other descriptions include "bright",
"light", and "clean". At first, I really didn't like
Darjeeling teas, but one day they all of a sudden became very
tasty. Darjeelings are often considered one of the finest teas;
they go way up in terms of price, and there are a lot
of different estates. This can be quite confusing and intimidating
at first, but don't be afraid to put off a detailed study of
Darjeelings until you've explored a number of other teas. I
Darjeelings are typically divided into "First Flush" and
"Second Flush" based on when they are harvested. First flush
comes after the spring rains, around March, whereas the second
harvest is in the summer. The season of harvest makes a big
difference in terms of flavor! First flush teas are generally lighter
in color and have a "brighter" and often sweeter taste. Second
flush teas are usually darker and are often more rich, complex, or
You can brew fine Darjeelings a little under a full
boil, perhaps at 200°F or so.
Sikkim Very Darjeeling-like, but a bit mellower. I preferred
these over Darjeeling when I was still acquiring the Darjeeling
Nilgiri A very basic India black. None of the astringency of
Darjeeling, none the maltiness of Assam. Just basic India
black, often with nice subtle flavors.
Assam Typically described as "malty". These are 'pick me up'
sort of teas, typically found at breakfast and often included in
breakfast blends. There are a lot of
Assam estates, with a wide variety of teas, but unlike Darjeeling
they tend to stay fairly reasonably priced.
The standard phrase for Keemuns is "The Burgundy of Tea". I'm not
quite sure what this means. Keemuns tend to be fairly robust and
flavorful, without being overpowering. I find them to be an
excellent default black tea, they are a
staple of my black drinking.
Yunnan teas are generally dark and complex. People often use the
word "peppery" in association with them. For some reason, Yunnans
don't seem to be very popular. I quite like them, and make sure to
keep one in my regular restock pool.
This tea is smoked over a pine fire. My coworkers call this "Bacon
Tea" because they think it makes the office smell like bacon. It
is a very distinctive tea. I really dig it, although it might be
an acquired taste. This tea is very low in caffeine, and is quite
mellow. This makes it an ideal evening tea. Also, a really good
Other China Blacks
Specialteas #593: Emperor's Red.
Handmade in the Fujian
province. I've heard several teas termed "chocolatey", but this
is the first one that made me understand the term. The tea
has a very noticeable aroma of chocolate. The tea is very, very
good. It is on my short list.
Specialteas #510: Golden Monkey.
Ok, so I'm a sucker for monkeys. I just couldn't refuse a tea
with the name "Golden Monkey." Very sweet for a black tea and
fairly tasty, but the flavor did not have the complexity I would
have liked. I don't think I'll be reordering.
Upton ZK16: Organic China Black FOP.
Generic China black. Tasty and cheap, but I'm not going to keep
a stock of it.
Upton ZK31: China Black Gunpowder.
This tea is rolled into small pellets just like its green
counterpart. The flavor is quite strong and interesting. Quite
woody or perhaps a bit nutty, but in a different way than Jade
Oolong, which also gets that description.
Specialteas #597: China Red Peony Rosettes (Black Mudan).
Cool form factor, but otherwise unremarkable (but certainly not
bad). The fact that all the leaves are tied together makes it
easy to fish the bundle out of a cup when done brewing if you
don't have a little basket. Of course, I just carry a little tea
basket with me when I travel.
Ceylon Many people would give Ceylon (Sri Lanka to the
rest of the world) its own category. I don't really like Ceylons,
so I stick it in 'Other'. I don't really have a good word for the
taste of Ceylons. They are often blended with other teas or used
as a base. I find Ceylons tend to make good iced teas.
Africa Africa has a few good tea growing regions. The
teas tend to be fairly robust; screwing up brewing or adding
excessive milk or sugar will not ruin the tea. They are also
fairly hearty and full bodied.
Upton TK30: Golden Kenya TGFOP.
Meh. Nothing against it, but I don't think I'll be ordering more
any time soon. Robust, but not too heavy. Pretty decent with a little sugar.
Indonesia Somewhat similar to Africa, Indonesia
(sometimes called Java) teas are full bodied and hearty.
China is the place to be for fine green teas. After a couple
millennia of practice, they get it right. Japan also has some
distinctive teas that are well worth stocking.
Lung Ching / Long Jing / Dragon Well
As my coworker Chang put it: this is bourgeoisie tea. One of the
most renowned China greens. I really really like Dragon Well. It
is a very low key flavor. Very vegetal (tea-speak for the grassy,
leafy taste), in a good way. Easily one of my favorite teas, and a
good introduction to refined greens. Good Dragon Well can get a
bit pricy, but it is very worth going for a high grade. Dragon
Wells really want to brewed at a very low temperature: 180°F
or less for no more than 3 minutes.
A popular style of China green. The low broad leaves are rolled
into little pellets (different than pearls) which 'explode like
gunpowder' when brewed. Even top grade gunpowders are quite
cheap. The flavoring of Gunpowder teas is less subtle then other
China greens. The liquor is bold and powerful, but not in the way
that a strong black tea is.
Other China Greens
A Japanese classic, and the most popular green tea in Japan. This
tea is rather vegetal, and generally
quite flavorful. Often served in Japanese restaurants. You really
want to keep the temperature and the steep time down, otherwise
you will end up with a bitter, nasty cup.
Upton TJ10: Japanese Sencha.
A very basic Sencha. It is worth a little extra money to move up
the scale from this, however.
- Three random bags of Sencha from Japan. Much better. Very
Another popular Japanese green. Generally very vegetal and often
rather sweet. The plants are grown in the shade.
You should brew at a very low temperature.
Toasted brown rice is added to a base of Sencha
(or occasionally Bancha). The taste is very distinctive -- it tastes
exactly as if there was toasted brown rice added to the tea. This
tea is also often served at Japanese restaurants, only slightly
less often than plain Sencha.
Upton TJ21: Gen-mai Cha.
A quite decent tea. Again, I think a slightly more expensive
version might be a good investment.
Green teas from India's Darjeeling region share many of the
characteristic flavors of the region's black teas, but tend to be
more subtle and low key as one might expect from a green tea.
KTDA Cooperative Whole Leaf Green.
Quite different from the average green tea. Worth at least a
sample pack. Very robust and somewhat sweet, it doesn't have
any of the refined notes of many of the China or Japan
greens but could be a very good everyday green. I think I might
actually order more.
Java Green Gunpowder.
A fairly dark liquor. A little more robust than China
gunpowders. Also, a heavy 'smoky' flavor, much like ZG25.
For the best Oolong teas, Taiwan is where it is at. China has some
Oolongs that are not bad, and there is the occasionally tasty
Darjeeling Oolong. But for the most part, stick to Taiwan
(Formosa). Unlike black teas (and to a lesser extent green teas), the
most important characteristic of an Oolong is not where it is from,
but rather how oxidized it is. As you may recall, black teas are fully
oxidized, green teas are unoxidized, and Oolongs are in between.
Many people use words like "nutty", "buttery", and "woody" to
describe Jade Oolongs. The flavor is subtle and complex.
These teas are a staple in my tea
diet. They can get a bit pricy, though.
Another lightly oxidized style, popular in China as well as
Taiwan. I'm less fond of Pouchong style tea, and tend to prefer
the Jade Oolongs. Sometimes described as having a "deeper" flavor.
A very popular style, mostly in China. Sometimes transliterated
Tikuanyin. Fairly green, but not usually vegetal.
As you might expect, this is the category for middle-of-the-road
oolongs. Not mostly oxidized, not lightly oxidized, but somewhat
This is what most people think of when they think of Oolong
tea. Typically a slightly deeper shade of amber liquor, with fairly
Upton TT15: Oolong Fine Grade.
Classic deep oolong flavor. Quite cheap, and a good value. Serious
Oolong fans could do a bit better though.
Specialteas #619: Bai Hao Special Grade Formosa.
You must use a lot of leaf for this tea, otherwise it ends up
rather weak. Overall, quite tasty. Classic oolong flavor, with
many complex notes. This is one of my regular stock items,
although I'm a little less pleased with the most recent batch
(ordered March 2007).
- Upton ZO93: Organic Imperial Bai Hao Oolong. Removed
from Upton Tea's inventory.
Specialteas #191: Poobong Oolong, Black Musk Darjeeling.
This tea lives up to its name. It is both Darjeeling and Oolong.
The flavor is very much Darjeeling, but mellower and subtler
than a black version. The leaf is very loose, so use lots. Also,
brew close to a full boil, perhaps at 200°F.
Upton TT49: Tippy Champagne Oolong Lot A47. Very tasty, but
not tasty enough to justify the (rather large) price.
White Tea Often billed as the most refined tea, White
teas are basically just picked and dried with no other
processing. I'm actually not terribly fond of White teas, and they
tend to be expensive too. Use lots of leaf and brew at a low
Ho-ji Cha is Japanese Bancha tea that has been roasted. The leaves
and the liquor are a sort of brownish color. The tea definitely
tastes like it has been roasted. It is rather hard to describe the
exact flavor. I've heard this called "brown tea".
Pu-Erh teas are very distinctive. Green tea (typically from the
Yunnan area) is placed in damp caves
for many years and allowed to decompose a bit. The resulting tea
is... different. It has a very earthy flavor. Definitely order a
sample before ordering a lot. You can get compressed cakes known as
Tuo-Cha as well as loose leaf. The cakes are a bit stronger and more
flavorful. This tea is used in Chinese medicine as a digestive aid,
especially with greasy or fatty food.
It is hard to categorize blended teas, so I'm just going to list those
I've sampled. I tend to prefer single estate teas to blends, partly
because most blends are made from lower quality tea, but also because
blends tend to mask the subtle flavors of individual teas. That said,
there are quite a number of very good blends, and one would be
seriously remiss to skip them altogether.
Upton TB86: Richmond Park Blend.
A blend of Keemun, Ceylon, and Darjeeling. One of my favorite
blends. The tea used in the blend is
of fairly high quality, and the result is a flavorful and robust
tea. I often pick this one when serving guests who don't really know
what they want other than "black tea".
Upton TB49: Darjeeling-Ceylon Iced Tea Blend.
As the name implies, this makes a damn good iced tea. It tastes
exactly like one thinks iced tea should. It's also OK hot.
Makes a good sweet tea too.
Upton TB75: Baker Street Afternoon Blend.
Keemun, Darjeeling, and a bit of Lapsang Souchong. Very tasty. The
base tea is of high quality, and the resulting liquor is well
rounded, robust, and very pleasant. Another keeper.
Upton TB84: Robert Fortune Blend 41 (Darjeeling-Yunnan).
Upton patrons reviewed this tea quite highly, which got me to try
it. I didn't dislike it, but it didn't rank above either a nice
Darjeeling or a nice Yunnan.
Specialteas #805: Mount Everest Breakfast Blend. The Yunnan
takes the edge off the Assam, resulting in a quite strong but very
drinkable pick-me-up cup.
Upton TB70: Finest Russian Caravan.
Specialteas #815: Smoky Russian Caravan.
Upton TB10: Bond Street English Breakfast Blend.
Upton TB15: Java Blend.
Specialteas #817: Samovar Blend Tsarina.
An interesting blend with both black and green teas. Quite tasty.
Ignore the brewing suggestion, brew a fair bit off a full boil. This
has made my restock list, and is a favorite afternoon tea.
Earl Grey Earl Grey is flavored with bergamot
oil. (Bergamot is a Mediterranean citrus fruit.)
It has a very distinctive taste. The base tea is
usually a China black. There are many many variations on the theme:
green tea base, other flavors to combine with bergamot, etc,
etc. This is one of the few teas I take with cream and sugar. A
wonderful afternoon treat, especially with scones, jam, and clotted
cream. The Brits do get some things right.
Chai is a traditional Indian drink made with tea and various spices
such as cinnamon, clove, cardamom and ginger. The tea is typically
simmered in milk and heavily sweetened. Chai is becoming very trendy
these days. You can brew in water and add milk and sugar afterwards,
but it is well worth trying it the traditional way at least once.
Jasmine A good Jasmine tea is a truly divine
treat. They tend to have a natural sweetness to them that makes a
very good tea for after a meal. Typically, Jasmine teas are
made by tossing jasmine flowers in with the tea during the drying
process. Usually the flowers are
removed afterwards. Sometimes, more than one set of flowers is used,
so you will see tea advertised as "scented five times" or some
such. Jasmines can get a bit pricy.
Upton ZJ90: Guangdong Province Jasmine Dragon Phoenix Pearl.
Wonderful. One of the best Jasmines I've tasted. The tea comes in
little spherical 'pearls' that are hand-rolled from two leaves and
a bud. The tea unfurls beautifully as it is brewed. A bit pricy,
but well worth it. This tea one of the first teas in my permanent
collection and I expect it will stay there. These seem to be
fairly high in caffeine.
Upton ZJ96: Organic Yu Ya Jasmine.
Quite good. I still prefer the pearls.
Upton ZJ85: China Jasmine Pearls.
Not as good as the premium pearls (ZJ90) and not much cheaper
either. Not to say it is bad tea, just that it is not worth
Teance Hand Tied Jasmine Balls.
From my favorite local tea house in Berkeley, these large spheres
of jasmine tea tied around a red clover blossom are utterly
amazing. They are a bit too expensive for everyday drinking,
even for me. But they make a wonderful gift. They unfurl like
flowers in the pot. Make sure you brew in something transparent to
watch. Oh, and the tea is delicious too.
Upton ZJ60: Organic Black Jasmine Ancient Beauty.
As the name implies, this is a black tea scented with Jasmine. The
base tea is surprisingly good, and the Jasmine is not too
overpowering. That said, I don't think this will make my restock
list. I can't really see myself drinking it regularly. It is a bit
too sweet and heavy for my regular black tea drinking, and it
can't compare to, say, ZJ90 when I'm in the mood for Jasmine.
Other There are a few other random flavored teas that I
quite like. And some that are really gross.
Upton TP40: Rose Congou.
A gentle sweet rose flavor. I'd like to find one with a slightly
nicer base tea.
Specialteas #569: Rose Congou.
Upton TP42: China Rose Special Chun Mee.
A rose flavored green tea. Not bad, but I didn't reorder.
Upton TE21: Monk's Blend.
For a long time, Upton didn't have a Monk's blend, however they
recently added it to their collection. Of
course, their version is different than every other Monk's blend
I've tried, they have a Ceylon Earl Grey mixed with green tea,
instead of black tea with grenadine and vanilla. Their version is
Upton TJ52: Japanese Cherry.
Bleh. Don't bother. It tastes like bubble-gum, in a bad way.
Upton TB54: East Frisian Sunday Tea.
Ewww. This tasted really gross. I'm not if it was the flavoring or
the base tea, or both. I really didn't like it.
Upton TF56: Raspberry.
When I was much younger, I really like Bigelow's "Raspberry Royale" tea
with lots of sugar and milk. I don't any more, and Upton's version
isn't really much better.
Many people really like "herbal tea". But the name is a misnomer. It
is not tea. It does not come from the same plant as tea, therefore it
is not tea. At best, it can be a pale imitation of tea.
That said, non-teas can be caffeine free and often tasty in their
own right. One would be remiss not to keep some on hand for those time
when real tea is just not an option.
A South African Herb. Naturally caffeine free. My favorite non-tea
by a long shot. Rooibos has been becoming very popular these days,
often marketed as "Red Tea" (not to be confused with what the
Chinese call "Red Tea" which is black tea). Rooibos lends
itself well to mixing with other flavors. I'm quite partial to
Rooibos and Lemongrass in the late evening.
Another South African herb. I don't like it as much as Rooibos, but
it is also fairly popular.
An age old herb. Brews a yellow liquor which is fairly sweet and
purported to be very good for helping people sleep. I find it a good
base for herbal blends.
More random herbs to throw in hot water.
Lemon Grass. Lemon grass makes a nice, relaxing brew. Also,
very good for mixing.
Certified Organic Peppermint. Mint is a classic evening
non-tea. Also, very good for mixing. Try with some Rooibos.
People throw a lot of random crap together into herbal blends. A
lot of random crap. Sometimes it's even tasty.
Upton BH75: Chamillo Blend.
Has a chamomile base, but with lots of citrus, fruit and other
flavors. Quite tasty. This the main herbal blend I keep around.
Copyright 2004 Nick Martin
Last modified: Tue Aug 28 14:21:51 PDT 2007