Each month, LP and I meet for brunch at Esselon Coffee in Hadley, Massachusetts in order to “collect data” in our quest to find our favorite tea on their extensive tea menu. After years of saying to each other, “Which one is the tea I love?” (to which the other responded, “I dunno. Which tea do I love?”) we finally decided to ferret out our prize once and for all by taste-testing all the teas. Therefore, LP and I can be found at Esselon one early-afternoon each month engaging in thoroughly highly scientific, thoroughly ridiculously subjective research.
THE TEA TASTING TEST RESULTS
LP compared balls with a tea sensei dominatrix. We discovered the fifth dimension of our mouths. I sat in a teeny-tiny racecar. Suffice it to say, it was no ordinary tea tasting this month.
“Be free next Saturday,” LP told me. “We’re going on a Tea Tasting Adventure, and that’s all I’m telling you.”
At the appointed time, I arrived at LP’s house with an open spirit. After lovin’ on my nephew the poodle and my niece the cockapoo (hehe, I said “cockapoo”), we set off for our Tea Tasting Adventure. My groan was only slightly audible as we turned into my personal version of hell, the mall. But my friend had done some reconnaissance work – bless her heart – and planned out the most direct entry into our destination, allowing for the least possible mall-contact with only a minor detour so I could sit in a red race car.
We entered Teavana with a heavenly bugle fanfare audible only to our hearts. Teapots, mounds of tea, and ample opportunities for tea testing sparkled before us as we entered the store. “Two ounces of any tea you want,” said LP with the same flourish reserved for Mr. Rourke’s “Welcome to Fantasy Island!” I could only smile and blink back happytouchy tears in response.
Soon enough, we were pulled into the gravitational force field of our own Teavana teaologist, or as we called her, our tea sensei dominatrix. In an act of misguided cockiness, I began our tutorial with the statement, “We’re looking for some tea. You might want to know” (fake-modest blow of the head) “we’re tea reviewers.” Her eyes alit eagerly as she launched into a PhD-level exploration on Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Tea But Were Too Stupid to Ask.
LP seemed to be eagerly lapping up the complex verbiage in great, deep gulps. Myself, I was particularly transfixed by the concept of “umami,” which our tea dominatrix called “the fifth dimension of taste,” an other-wordly sensory experience with a potential for flashbacks long after the last sip has been drained from the cup. As LP and I are both Star Trek fans (“Make it so, Number One!”), the whole concept of a fifth dimension of taste had us swallowing down snarky comments about tears in the space-tea continuum. But we wouldn’t dare interrupt our tea dominatrix, especially after earlier I had tried making ribald jests about tea with her. It didn’t go well.
Although the lecture was rich and textured, I found myself resisting the addition of new knowledge into our tea tasting experiences. Later, I expressed to LP my concern about getting too educated in the ways of leaf structure, complex taste verbiage, and the joys of chlorophyll. “We are comedians first,” I worriedly admitted to my friend, “tea tasters second. Or third, fourth or maybe even fifth. Yes, fifth. Tea testing is the umami of our process!” I didn’t want the deeper seeping in the knowledge of tea to interfere with the pure, unadulterated ignorance of our tea taste tests. In short, as I guiltily confessed to LP, I didn’t want us to get too smart about tea.
“Don’t worry, honey,” LP comforted me with only the slightest southern drawl. “We don’t have the bone structure for that.”
Ignorance reassurance. Phew.
After a luxuriously long time of sniffing and comparing buds, LP and I finally each made a selection. (That’s what she said.)
Jasmine Oolong, Rating – Glee-Teehee (me), Oh Gee (LP)
I am the green tea gal of the duo. LP, she’s a black tea lover. However I must insert the disclaimer that I veered from our tea sensei dominatrix’s recommendation for her #1 favorite green tea (that prize spot is reserved for Emperor’s Clouds & Mist…and with a name like that, why shouldn’t it be?) Please forgive me for I simply could not choose another tea after our tea dominatrix introduced us to Miss Jasmine Oolong with a thigh-high leather boot-flavored overture in the voice of the tea, “Hi, I’m Jasmine,” said our tea dominatrix in a husky voice. “Oh yeah, we’re drinking some tea.” (There was an unspoken “bitch” at the end of that command.)
LP was underwhelmed with this tea, but as I said she’s not a green tea fan. When questioning her tea-making approach to this tea vs. our tea dominatrix’s instruction, LP became surly, “Maybe I’m not putting enough tea in my ball, but screw her.”
Damn. If you’re reading this, tea dominatrix, I do not condone nor support such talk around tea.
Nine Dragon Golden Needle (black) Rating – Yippee! (both)
“That’s the puppy,” LP crooned when getting a noseful of Nine Dragon Golden Needle. We loved the woody loveliness. “A buncha bancha,” said LP referring to a Japanese tea. “It’s like lickin’ a tree.” To me it tasted like a cabin in the woods, a comforting pine tree cozy cup of happiness. Heavenly.
According to the Teavana brochure, this tea is “composed of one leaf & one bud.” Just like LP & me. A leaf and a bud.*
(*I don’t know what this means exactly, but I do know I mean it with deep and utter love and just a hint of impropriety.)
[The following are teas we have taste-testing in the past:]
This tea had us at its name. LP says you have to hear this and then say the name. I know, right? You can just picture a hot scene between Jasmine Dragon and Phoenix Pearls. Bow chicka bow wow. It gets better. Here’s the description from the Esselon website: “Each pearl is made by hand rolling two leaves and a bud, and when the tea is steeped in hot water the pearls unravel.”
Oh, yeah, we ordered that tea. Who doesn’t love a hot cup of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll?
The nose of the tea was quite wonderfully perfumy. Upon sipping, LP proclaimed the Jasmine Dragon Phoenix Pearl was “like a piece of gum. Sweet.” She was propelled into a memory lane of gums of her childhood as she tried to recall the name of the gum the tea provoked. Then she had some sort of gum seizure and kept saying, “Fruity fruit fruit fruit….fruity fruit fruit…Fruit Stripe gum!”
I don’t know what the h-e-double-hockeysticks she was talking about with the whole fruity Fruit Stripe gum episode. I found the tea delightful with a pleasant astringent quality. To top things off, whoever Phoenix Pearl is, she must be a real firecracker because that green tea gave me a jump-back-kiss-your-mama caffeine buzz. I was vibrating on high for hours.
Ti Kwan Yin – Iron Goddess of Mercy (oolong) - Rating: Glee-Teehee (both)
While Miss Jasmine Dragon Phoenix Pearl got us thoroughly titillated, we were ripe for Ti Kwan Yin’s moniker “Iron Goddess of Mercy.” Plus it’s an oolong. (That’s what she said.) LP goes for the size queen/dominatrix thing a bit anyway, so there was no stopping her once she laid eyes on that tea.
Ti Kwan Yin starts with a comforting aroma, a nice grassy smell, with a taste that includes a lot of dimension as it seemed to broaden in your mouth. We both found it to be a solid tea. “Like a heavy chair,” said LP. “You know what I mean…a chair you really…sit…in…you can’t fall over, not that I fall over…” This description was accompanied by wild gesticulations that made me fear she really would flip back in her chair at any minute. Between the XXX tea and the Iron Maiden here, we really were quite stimulated by our teas during this visit to Esselon. A thoroughly invigorating afternoon delight.
Monkey Picked Ti Kwan Yin: Rating – Good Tea (both of us)
Onto the tea. When ordering the Monkey Picked Ti Kwan Yin, LP asked for “Tae Kwan Do.” This joke seemed to be lobbed to an unreceptive player as the woman behind the register simply ignored our childish shoving and giggling. Hmph. Spoiler alert: Monkey Picked tea is no longer picked by monkeys. This was a great disappointment to me, as I love monkeys (though would not want to see them enslaved by evil tea farmers, so perhaps it’s for the best.) According to the Esselon website, this tea is “plucked from cliffsides typically 5000 feet or higher, is a very light roast. Ti Kwan Yin and has a bright, lemony, soft flavor.”
The initial sniffing of the tea lead to a conclusion by LP of “spinach…wet spinach.” Upon further olfactory inspection I decided it smelled distinctly of another greenery, one which its medical uses are currently in legal dispute in California. “Liquid Mary Jane” was my final assessment, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Upon tasting, LP thought she could taste the lemony flavor, but I am certain that was purely a placebo effect brought on by reading the description of the tea.
LP really embraced her role of tea connoisseur this month in a way that I might suggest is a wee bit cocksure. (Excuse my French.) You see, she threw around a great deal of fake tea tasting verbiage and even insisted she knew the correct way to pour tea (in a consistent, counter-clockwise manner…though I think I owe her an apology for scalding her fingers when I tried to replicate her style.) LP even felt that chewing on a leaf would be the next reasonable step in our process, which she promptly did before I could stop her (I was laughing too hard to make a proper attempt, I must confess.) But I think LP learned her lesson about the leaf tasting, impressively without losing a speck of her pseudo-connoisseurship, as she quickly spit out the leaf, pronouncing the nibble “a bitter backlash like a bad break up.” It was the alliteration that convinced me that LP needs to be taken down a leaf or two.
Bao Zhong – Pouchong: Rating – Sorry (LP), Good Tea (Pam, referring to heavily steeped cups)
Although we loves us our Esselon workers, they dropped the brewing ball on our Bao Zhong (pronounce “bao jong” for the record.) This tea requires a long brew time, which it did not get, and so our initial experience of it was quite negative. I thought it smelled like wet dog. LP set me straight however, “Honey, that smells like dirty sink water.” I don’t know what dirty sink water is, and I don’t ever want to know. LP continued, “You know what that smell is, if you wet a dirty sock and you run out-” I interrupted her rant. I didn’t want to know where she was going with the wet dirty sock on the run metaphor.
According to the Esselon tea guide, “Bao Zhong is considered its own class of tea, as it is the least oxidized oolong, exhibiting characteristics of both oolong and green tea. A very bright tea, vibrant in color, aroma, and flavor. Grassy, with notes of lemon, lilac, and melon. The first steeping can be overpowering in its brightness but each successive steeping mellows and softens the flavor.”
We found it to be none of these things, unless, as LP said, “brightness means an empty, wet sock.” LP sighed upon further testing of the first cup of Bao Zhong and said (in her best Humphrey Bogart voice), “That’s not it, kid. You want me to buy you another pot of tea?” I graciously declined, touched by her courteous gallantry. LP sighed deeply, and said in a serious manner, “This is the tea critic’s life…” I nearly peed my pants laughing at her profound resignation.
And indeed there was a dampening of pants when I mistakenly spilled my first pouring of Bao Zhong. At first, we wondered if the evil Pouchong spirits were cursing us for dissing their brew. But then it became apparent that perhaps the spill was angel-sent. For the second cup of Bao Zhong tea, which had benefited from a long steepage, was a whole other…well, I guess I could say, a whole other cup of tea. As LP testified, “You went from sock to tea. And that’s a good leap.” Indeed!
I really did enjoy the well-brewed cups of Bao Zhong, finally settling on my “Good Tea” rating. LP couldn’t seem to get past her initial impression (“Brightness? It’s dim like a light bulb!”), which took her from her Monkey Picked alliteration to Bao Zhong assonance as she concluded, “The tea, the B.Z., is a sorry.” We agreed to disagree, or as LP said, “T.E.H.O.” (pronounced tea-ho), meaning “to each her own.” I think she was just calling me a ‘ho though, which I won’t even attempt to debate. In the end, we ended the friendly disagreement by quoting “Ally McBeal” with a simple “Bygones.” We invite you to take a well-brewed taste of this tea and share your own opinions with us. (Especially if you agree with me.)
Rating – Sorry (from both of us)
For details, see below.
Yin Zhen Silver Needle (white tea): Rating – Sorry (both)
Esselon only has two white teas, so we decided to test them both at our first trial. According to www.whiteteaguide.com, white tea is the “mightiest of the teas.” What makes it so dang mighty? “Simply put, white tea is the least processed form of tea, made of beautiful silver buds and select leaves which have been steamed and dried.” LP and I are suckers for works like “mightiest” and “beautiful silver buds,” (sounds like a girl you’d want to meet, right?) so it was a no-brainer that we start with the white teas. When my tea arrived, I was momentarily flummoxed by my teapot, which refused to dispense my tea. I tipped and tipped, but the tea stubbornly remained in the pot. We were making such a ruckus the server came over to help. I may have accused her of providing me with a trick pot (Later LP said, “So what did you think, Pam, that you were being Punk'd by the servers at Esselon?!” Uh, could happen. Totally.) Somehow the server poured my tea into my cup with a humiliating amount of ease. This sent LP and I into a long bout of hysterical laughter. When we told our spouses this story, neither of them found any humor in it whatsoever.
Once we weren’t at risk for spewing tea through our noses, we tested our white teas. I must confess, we were both disappointed. We found the teas too delicate, thin and subtle for our crude mouths.
Bai Hao White Tip Oolong: Rating – Glee (LP), Good Tea (Pam)
This is a fun tea to order but challenging to say without sounding culturally insensitive. I enjoyed its woody bouquet. It reminded me of the cedar A-frame cabin “Up North” (northern Michigan) we had when I was a kid. This tea had “a lot going on” and seemed delicately complex. A very enjoyable scent. According to the Esselon website, Bai Hao “is also ‘tippy’ meaning a high proportion of the tea is made up of tender white buds which give the tea a soft, delicate flavor.” LP and I both like tender white buds though we prefer a more engaging and in-your-face brew. We don’t know what the f* “tippy” means, and we’re too old and ADD to really understand it at this point in the game.
Darjeeling 2nd Flush Oolong: Rating – Glee-Jamboree (both)
We rated this oolong as Glee-Jamboree because it was like a happy party in our mouths. (In a good way.) We both enjoyed the bouquet, which we described as “heady” (that was me) and “meaty” (that was LP.) The word “astringent” came to mind, which LP contends is a fancy-pants tea word for “bitter.” Apparently, we both like astringent teas. LP called it “winey” (not whiney, which is what she called me.) My taste buds were not in tuned for subtleness at testing time (LP claims it’s because I had wicked PMS), so I simply noted it as warm, comforting and ultimately pleasingly “tea-ish.” LP delighted in the fullness and woodiness of this Darjeeling 2nd Flush, saying she could taste it “all the way down my mouth. It’s like licking wood.” I fully concur, my only caveat being that I felt like my teeth were wearing fur coats after drinking this tea. It’s too bad the name of this tea makes me think of a stubborn poop in the toilet. Nonetheless, we would definitely order this tea again.
Pam and LP making comedy together
About your teatotalers:
LP is a married mother of two adorable doggies (one of whom is my nephew, the poodle.) LP grew up in the Upper West Side (Manhattan, duh) where she acquired many city smarts that fail to do her any good whatsoever in western Massachusetts. She no longer, however, thinks carrots grow on trees. To know LP is to love her, especially if you are a child, a small animal or me. She is funny, wise, and truthful. Also, when she was twelve, she was in a Movie of the Week (“The War Between the Tates”). LP is the best BFF in the world. We both agree that we couldn’t love each other more than we do already, but we remain ever open to the possibility.
I am a married mother of two people who are taller than me. We are a homeschooling family. I like to teach. I like to write. I love to perform, especially comedy and super-especially improv comedy. LP and I have been performing improv comedy together for over seven years in our troupe The Ha-Ha’s (formerly The Ha-Ha Sisterhood).