The Toronto Tea Festival is coming up at the end of January 2016, which means that the event’s organizers have started to promote it more widely. In October, the organizers posted a note on Facebook saying that they were looking for 40 tea tasters to sample a variety of teas from vendors who will appear at the 2016 festival.
Free tea? Why not? I applied and was accepted.
When the tea packages were ready to pick up, I got the following email from one of the festival organizers:
Dear TTF Tea Tasters:
Thank you for participating in the inaugural Toronto Tea Festival (TTF) Tea Tasters Box. By now you should have picked up your teas while those who could not pick up will be receiving them in the mail shortly. If you have not yet picked up your tea samples at Tao Tea Leaf the deadline is November 14th.
Please steep and taste your teas, then go online and complete the Tea Tasters Rating Form at [address redacted]. You will have received six out of twenty-four teas for tasting. Please find the tea company name that corresponds to your tea sample, then find the specific tea and make your vote!
Deadline to complete the rating form is December 13th.
Feel free to share your experience of this process with us on Facebook or Twitter and use the hashtag #teatastersboxTO.
We hope you enjoy all the teas but remember we’re counting on you to provide us with your feedback to determine the “tealovers’ choice” for the best tea in each category. The winners and runners up will be announced on the Toronto Tea Festival social media channels and also at the 4th annual Toronto Tea Festival on January 30 & 31st, 2016.
I picked up my bag of teas on November the 5th and sampled them all over the course of a few weeks. Here, I’ll look at each of the teas I was given below and share the rating I gave them for each tea. However, I think that this whole endeavour could have been organized much better, and I’ll discuss my concerns at the end.
Spa Herbal Tea From 3 Tea
This is an herbal tea with ginger, chamomile, and rose petals. Opening the pack, I’m greeted with whole heads of dried chamomile flowers, dried pink rose petals, and dried chunks of ginger. It’s quite pretty, but I’m wary anyways because I’m just not a chamomile person.
Surprisingly, this tea isn’t half bad. The brew is a pale golden colour after about 2 minutes of steeping. The chamomile is very strong, but the ginger is present enough to prevent the whole mix from being cloying. I still don’t like chamomile, but I probably will be able to finish this off in the evenings without too much trouble.
I rated it 7/10 — pretty impressive, considering that I dislike chamomile.
Ceylon Tea New Vithanakande Estate From Capital Teas Ltd
The dry leaf of this Ceylon is black, thin, and wiry, with the occasional silver tip peeking through. Each strand of leaf is probably about the length of a grain of rice. The smell is muted, but somewhat brisk and malty.
I put a generous spoonful in my teapot and let it steep with boiling water for 3 minutes. The resulting brew was a coppery brown with the citrusy, bright aroma that you normally get with Ceylons. A tad brisk and astringent, but otherwise it didn’t really knock me off my feet. I find that Ceylons can be somewhat temperamental, though — sometimes I brew them and they turn out great, and other days it’s meh. This one was somewhere in the middle of that continuum. I rated this tea 6/10.
Long Jing From Genuine Tea
The leaves here look like most other Long Jings: oblong, somewhat flat, and feathery. This variety was quite vegetal, and not quite as nutty — I got a strong sense of snap peas and green beans here, rather than chestnut. Since I’m not really a huge fan of Long Jings in general, this tea was wasted on me.
This was probably the tea I found least impressive. I gave it a 5/10.
Blood Orange from Basilur
One of the big issues I had with this set of teas is that some of the samples were packaged in paper rather than plastic, and this tea is the main reason why: it’s so strongly scented that even when I was walking down Bloor Street in the middle of downtown, during rush hour, with the sample in a sealed pouch inside a goddamned plastic bag, I could STILL smell it. Every so often I’d catch a whiff of something fruity that I couldn’t identify and go Hey, is someone wearing perfume?
That is how strong this tea smells. I was worried that it would contaminate all the other teas in the sample pack, especially the Ceylon, which was also sealed in paper packaging.
That said, the tea is quite pleasant when you deliberately open the pouch it’s sealed in. It smells unmistakably of citrus — at first whiff, it smells like a creamsicle, but deep down into the base notes I get a sense of something dry and boozy, like fruitcake. Looking closely at the leaf, you can see tons of dried, sliced orange peel, too, plus some berries and flowers and other fripperies.
I took half the sample (7 grams) to make a single teapot and steeped it in boiling water for 3 minutes. The resulting tea was a nice, cozy mulled orange colour. However, it was both tart and bitter, and even a spoonful of honey couldn’t save it from my reckless overleafing. The hibiscus and orange are strong in this one.
Ultimately, I gave this one a 7/10.
Sencha From Momo Tea
This was another tea that was sealed in a paper packet. Luckily, this was also unaffected by the heavy sent of the Basilur Blood Orange tea. Thank god, because this tea is lovely on its own — one of the sweetest and most delicate senchas I’ve had in a long time.
The leaf of this one was a deep emerald broken into fine spindles with a soft, hayish scent — In fact, I’m surprised that they’re saying this is a sencha, because it looks very much like a gyokuro. It took well to overleafing and oversteeping — even despite a longer infusion, it didn’t turn bitter, astringent, or umami. Instead, it was soft, pale yellow-green, and sweet with notes of grass and hay. The brewed leaf was a bright emerald. I’m definitely happy I got a chance to try this.
This was my favourite from the set — I gave it 9/10.
Da Hong Pao From Tao Tea Leaf
Tao Tea Leaf is one of the founders of the Toronto Tea Festival, so I’m not really sure how I feel about them including their tea in the tasting set. If the whole point of this exercise is to get people to rate which teas are the best, isn’t it kind of stacking the deck to include one of your teas if you’re the one running the contest?
Interestingly, the paper packets that the Basilur, Capital Tea, and Momo Tea samples were packaged in are the paper packets that Tao uses for selling its own single-serve samples at the Tao Tea Leaf store. However, the Tao Tea Leaf packaged their own tea sample in a plastic zip-lock pouch — that is, a sturdier kind of packaging that’s much less permeable, and therefore much less likely to be contaminated by other flavours. Why would they give their own tea such superior packaging if this is meant to be a fair taste test?
Anyways. I decided to brew this tea using a gaiwan, measured out 5.6 grams of dry leaf, and brewed it multiple times using 90°C water. The dry leaf was dark brown, twisted, and thick, with a strong roasted/wood note.
I was greeted with an intense smell of wood, cinnamon, smoke, coffee, and sesame after the rinse. The tea really woke up on the second and third steeps, with an intense roasted note. As I continued to steep, the flavour diminished, but on the final steep I detected a floral note — rose, I think.
Considering the other Da Hong Paos I’ve tried, this one was pretty classic-tasting, and was pleasantly smooth. I gave it an 8/10.
What Worked and What Didn’t
In addition to Steepster, I’m part of a private Facebook group that discusses tea, and many of the group members are in Toronto, just like I am. Thus, several of us took part in this tea tasting experiment/contest/publicity stunt for the Toronto Tea Festival. But as a group, we found that there are several problems with the way this contest has been handled.
For one thing, there were 24 different teas that the festival organizers had samples for, but each sample bag contained only 6 teas. This means every person got a unique set of teas to sample. I can kinda see what the Toronto Tea Festival had in mind by doing this — they wanted to give each participant a special experience. But how on earth can the festival organizers be sure which tea is the “best” according to the participants if every participant’s experience is different?
On top of that, the grab bag of samples meant that there was no guarantee that each participant would enjoy what they were given. What if I were allergic to chamomile? What if I absolutely detested Ceylon tea and refused to drink it? That would have been incredibly unfair to the vendor involved.
Also, if this contest is meant to help people at the festival determine the best tea, they’re really going about it ass-backwards. What can it possibly mean to choose a “best” among such a wide variety of teas? It would have been far more productive to group each of the 24 samples into a set — for example, an all-green-tea set or an all-rooibos set — and have participants choose the set that they were most interested in. This accomplishes two positive things:
- It means there are more awards the festival can give out — Best Green Tea, Best Oolong Tea, and so on.
- It makes compiling all of the survey results from the participants much easier, so it takes less effort for the organizers to determine which tea is the “best”.
Overall, my friends and I found everything — the bags, the survey, the hashtag — highly disorganized. I hope that if the Toronto Tea Festival tries to do this again in preparation for the 2017 festival, they’ll approach it differently.