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Tag: Toronto Tea Festival

A Trip to the 2017 Toronto Tea Festival

The last weekend of January just passed us by, and you know what that means: I’m fresh off of attending the Toronto Tea Festival. I’ve written about the Toronto Tea Festival before, but as this is one of the biggest tea-related things going in the GTA, I’d be remiss to not talk about it.

So, I went on Sunday and met up with several of my Toronto-area tea friends: fellow Steepster users like me who have met up in the past to swap and talk tea. When I first walked through the entrance area, I was greeted by a set of trophies, this year’s winners from the pre-festival tasting contest.

A table with trophy-winning tea varieties, winners of this year's audience taste test at the Toronto Tea Festival.

One of my tea friends, Adrienne, who volunteers with the festival and has taken tea sommelier courses, told me that the winners on the table were all sold out — Saturday’s audience had snapped them up, and the vendors in question didn’t anticipate that winning the audience tasting contest would result in an uptick of sales. This didn’t affect me much, since I have so much tea at this point that I’m already pretty comfortable with my own palate and level of knowledge.

In past years, I’ve always attended the Toronto Tea Festival on a Saturday, so going on a Sunday was a surprise. It was nowhere near as crowded! I could walk around easily, look at things without jostling too many elbows, and not feel smothered by others. This is what it looked like just half an hour after I arrived, when in comparison, the Saturdays are jam-packed:

A picture of a crowd at the Toronto Tea Festival. People surround the tables, but the aisle in the middle is clear.


Look at all that space in the middle of the aisle!

I did some circuits around the room, but ultimately I bought and sampled only a few things since, again, I have a ridiculous amount of tea already and really shouldn’t add to the pile.

For example, I tried some chaga mushroom tea for the first time. The chaga mushroom itself looked like something leprous that had fallen of an Ent:

A whole chaga mushroom sitting on a wooden tray. It looks like a lump of burnt, decomposing wood.

The gentleman who offered me a sample of chaga mushroom tea told me about how chaga grows only on birch trees and ultimately kills its host — the harvesting of the mushroom can extend the life of the tree, but really it’s just delaying the inevitable by a few decades. Depressing stuff.

I had a few sips of the tea out of politeness — it was served cold, which did its earthiness and slight tannic qualities no favours — and then discreetly rushed for a place to pour the remainder out of my cup.

However, all was not lost, as a few tables down from the Entish Parasite of Tannic Doom was a new vendor at the festival I hadn’t seen before: Rosewood Estates Winery, which, in addition to making wine, also makes honey. Their table was covered in jars of honey of different varieties, as well as containers of honeycomb and thick beeswax candles.

The table of Rosewood Estates Winery, covered in jars of honey
Adrienne had warned me ahead of time that they were very popular and that one of their offerings, a variety of honey smoked over burning pine, had sold out the day before.

So did I want some smoked honey? Yes please! I sampled it and noticed that although I couldn’t really taste any smoke — there wasn’t some sort of Lapsang Souchong thing going on — the honey was smooth and mild, yet rich. I bought a jar almost immediately, spooked that if I didn’t act quickly I would miss out on something unique.

Other booths soon followed, like the one for Steeped Tea. Last year at the festival they offered samples of vanilla-flavoured matcha mixed with orange juice. They had it again this year, but although I was happy to try some, I didn’t buy any matcha myself. I know that it’s just going to sit on my shelf if I’m not careful, and matcha is far too finicky for me to risk doing that.

After that, I went to one of the vendors that I absolutely knew I wanted to buy from before I arrived: T by Daniel.

They’ve always been a hit at previous festivals, what with their catchy bow-tie logo and the fact that the proprietor has an outsized sense of style. That’s his picture on the booth backdrop in the top hat and purple suit:

I sampled a few teas, and Daniel himself was able to fill out my order. Ultimately, I purchased five packets of tea, all roughly about an ounce in weight:

  • Chai Noir, a black chai with vanilla, hazelnut, and macadamia nut
  • Caramel Popcorn, a black tea with walnut, apple, almond, and caramel flavouring
  • Strawberry Baloons, a green tea with strawberry and papaya
  • Watch That Mango, a green tea with mango and pineapple
  • Flu Who, an herbal tea with cassia, lemongrass, coconut, pineapple, and more

I then went to lunch with my tea friends at the Asian restaurant across from the Toronto Reference Library and split the teas with Adrienne.

The crowd was much bigger after we came back, with attendance levels much more like Saturdays from previous years. I did some more wandering around, talking with the staffers at the booths of 3 Teas and Jalam Teas.

Jalam Teas in particular had some pu’erh cakes that I tried, but I didn’t get anything in the end. I have waaaay too much pu’erh, much of it I bought in a shopping spree back in the summer of 2015 that I still haven’t even unwrapped. Adding a few more cakes to my groaning cupboard is absolutely the last thing I should do.

After that, I was really starting to feel myself winding down, so I made one last purchase — the Sacred Blend from Algonquin Tea Company, which specializes in promoting Indigenous-culture teas — and headed out the door.

The total damage from all 3 purchases was $44, which is pretty impressive. I think that’s the least I’ve spent in all 4 years that I attended! I’m sipping the Caramel Popcorn tea as I write this, and I’m happy that I had yet another day filled with tea, friends, and community.

My Thoughts on the 2016 Toronto Tea Festival

Woo! I know I’ve been gabbing about it for the past few weeks, but the Toronto Tea Festival finally happened last weekend! I got to meet up with my tea friends, do some swaps, see people whose books I’ve read (I got to meet Linda Gaylard face-to-face!), and generally just absorb the atmosphere of it all.

Are panda-themed tea sets a good way to add atmosphere? I'd say yes.

Are panda-themed tea sets a good way to add atmosphere? I’d say yes.

I’ve written an article about the event for World of Tea, Tony Gebely’s site, but that review was a more generalized one of the whole event. Here’s a more personal, impressionistic take on things:

Like last year, and the year before, the festival was crowded. There were nearly 50 vendors (not all of them sold tea, but the vast majority did), and I would easily say that thousands of people showed up. I’m still kind of amazed that they’re holding the event at the Bluma Appel Salon in the Toronto Reference Library, as the whole place felt crowded to the seams. Even if the Reference Library is a great central location, I honestly think they could benefit from hosting it in a larger space next year.

In addition to the vendors, there was the front stage where the festival held regional tea ceremonies and even tea tasting competitions. I took part in such a competition on Saturday morning and it was much harder than I thought it would be. I was generally able to determine what kind of tea was being served (white, green, oolong, etc), but had a much harder time naming the correct country of origin and cultivar. Evidently, my tea tasting tongue has a long way to go before it’s truly an expert!


I borked the tea tasting competition. I am not worthy enough of this gorgeous gaiwan.

I strolled around, tasting samples and taking stock of vendors I’ve seen there before. It was good to see Joel from Capital Teas again —  he has a phenomenal memory, and still remembers that I bought a pack of jasmine pearls from him at the festival two years ago. There were lots of familiar shops there.

However, there were also some new ones. The vendor that I was most excited about was a ceramics studio called Secret Teatime. They make handmade cups, mugs, and Japanese tea vessels out of stoneware; Momo Tea, which occupied the stall next to them, was pouring matcha from one of their stoneware bowls. I’m not a huge matcha person, but I ended buying a matcha bowl and a set of cups from Secret Teatime because it turns out that their studio is in Scarborough, the same suburb of Toronto that I’m from.

And there was also this gentleman, who was preparing matcha in a corner near the stage.

And there was also this gentleman, who was preparing matcha in a corner near the stage.

And let me tell you, as someone who’s lived her whole life in Scarborough, it kinda sucks when people think of your suburb as this vast swath of conservative, Rob-Ford-voting mouthbreathers. Having an independent ceramics studio in the same suburb as me just tickles me pink. Plus, I’m supporting local business by buying their wares! How could I say no to that? I’ll review the tea set from them very soon. I also bought a matcha whisk from Momo Tea to accompany the ceramics set.

Other than the bowl, cups, and whisk, I bought only two varieties of tea: a big bag of nettle tea from Samadhi Tea House and some intriguing chai mix from Chaiwala. Most of the other vendors there were offering things I was already pretty familiar with, so it didn’t feel like such an adventure as it has in the past.

Some spices from Chaiwala.

Some spices from Chaiwala.

I’m finding it interesting that the year in which I bought the most tea from the tea festival was the first year I attended, in 2014. Then, I was still very new to the world of loose-leaf tea beyond David’s Tea and Teavana, and at the festival I bought five types of loose tea the first time I went — which, back then, felt excessive. Goodness, how much has changed! The festival served as my kickstart to the loose leaf tea world, and I learned a lot through Steepster. But now that I know my way around more, I know what vendors I like to buy from and I have a better idea of my own tastes; the festival doesn’t represent as huge a trove of wonder as it used to.


Though I have to admit that a big-ass table covered in tea is still pretty awesome…

It was still fun, though. There were some beautiful ceramics on display, and it was nice to spend a day at the library downtown.

Gorgeous ceramics like these, I mean. Bow down, for you are not worthy of such lovely items!

Gorgeous ceramics like these, I mean. Bow down, for you are not worthy of such lovely items!

Tea Festival and What-Cha Nepal Golden Tips Black Tea

It’s near the end of January, and in Toronto, that can mean only one thing….

The Toronto Tea Festival is coming!

Yes, that’s right, the 4th annual Toronto Tea Festival is just around the corner — next weekend in fact. I’ll be attending, of course; how could I stay away? Even better, I’ll be doing a short write-up about the event and some of its seminars for World of Tea, the online tea resource run by Tony Gebely of American Tea Room. I’m pretty excited about that.

An even bigger cherry on the sundae is that I’ll be meeting up with a bunch of my Steepster friends to swap tea and chat. If you just so happen to be in the Toronto area, why not come along yourself and see if we run into each other?

However, although the festival runs for two days — both the 30th and the 31st of January — I plan to attend only on the 30th. Two days in a row would just be exhausting, I think. So if you are in Toronto and want to meet up, go on Saturday.

Now, onto today’s tea.

Nepal Golden Tips Black Tea from What-Cha

I got this as a free sample from a group order from What-Cha back in 2015. (I’ll review the rest of the teas that came with the order in good time, don’t you worry.)

The dry leaf is thick, twisted and golden — when you look at it close up, it looks sort of like yarn. The smell is sweet, bready, and thick, like sweet potato.


I took the entire sample — about 6 grams — and brewed it in a small teapot (remember this one?) with 85°C water for 1 minute. I could have done it in the gaiwan like shown in the picture, but eh, I was lazy.

The brewed tea was dark brown and had a cool undertone to it. It smelled sweet, malty, and slightly sour. Overall, the whole thing reminded me of wet hay.

Down the hatch, I got a similar taste of wet hay, sweet potato, and something sour I couldn’t quite put my finger on. As the tea cooled, a bitter undertone developed underneath. It wasn’t sharp, but I still didn’t like it, because it wasn’t a pleasant bitterness,  but one that felt kind of old and reminiscent of plastic.

The second steep, also for 1 minute, was very similar. Unfortunately, I just wasn’t feeling it and had trouble finishing the second steep.

This tea session with the Nepal Golden Tips Black Tea was kind of a bust. There was promise there, though; I think if I had tried it with my gaiwan it would have been a more pleasant experience.

Toronto Tea Festival Tasting Set

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?

</consipiracy theory>

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:

  1. It means there are more awards the festival can give out — Best Green Tea, Best Oolong Tea, and so on.
  2. 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.

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