It was a busy show, this World Tea Expo, and I had a duty: to cover as much of the show as possible, to document the details, to sift through the hundreds of displays in search of the newest, brightest, and most awesome. It was 11:30am, the show floor had just opened, and already I had filled each hour slot along the day with an appointment. I had no idea what to do next.
And so, making my way down the first row of booths, keeping my eye open for any and all things captivating, I was thrilled to stumble upon the “North American Tea Championship Winners Tasting Circle,” where tea companies were preparing their model iced teas for judgment by the crowd. Each guest was given two poker chips (appropriately, as the expo was held in Las Vegas) and asked to taste the iced teas and to reward their two favorites with a chip. I made my way into the quickly crowding arena and began to taste—counter-clockwise at first, and then in random order as I chose the path of least resistance through eager tasters waving plastic cups.
For me, the winners were obvious: Rishi Tea astounded me with their foodservice variety of Citron Green iced tea, and ITO EN knocked my socks off with their line of canned Sencha Shots and their bottled Golden Oolong. I dropped a chip into each of their buckets, listening for the rattling of other chips, curious if my tastes matched common opinion. Then I did as any good documentor would do: I snapped several photos of my favorite products and of the event, took eager notes, and began planning for a blog. I would write descriptions of each tea that I tasted, identify what aspects I was looking for in a winner, and then declare my selections (followed of course with the final crowd favorites, determining whether I have good or poor taste according to the masses). It was going to be great.
You can imagine, then, my surprise when I set out to google the actual winners of the event and discovered that in fact they were all winners. The actual judging was held a month prior to the expo, and each of the resulting exhibitors was a winner in one category or another. None of the teas I tasted were actually competing with one another. So I was left with a page of useless notes and a story about a winner among winners—not exactly the type of thing that runs hot off the press.
And then I got to thinking—ITO EN, surely, did win something that day that no other exhibitor can boast: my respect (admiration, even!) for pre-packaged, ready-to-drink iced teas. Until only very recently, Snapple and Arizona iced teas were the only real options on grocery shelves, and each sweet drink only mildly resembled the full flavor of the leaves I have come to love. I had heard rumors of some higher quality varieties, but (tea-snob that I am) I harbored the suspicion that companies were simply slapping words like “oolong” on their bottles for a high-end appearance.
True, the words “Golden Oolong” have a nice ring to them—but could the liquid within measure up? I sipped from my small plastic cup, and much to my surprise, it tasted like oolong tea. It tasted like good oolong tea, in fact. It tasted like the oolong tea that I make in our offices, the oolong tea that I drop leaf by leaf into purified water, the oolong tea that I watch unfurl and slowly bleed into a rich amber liquor. In my highly professional, detailed notes on the color, aroma, and flavor of each tea that I sampled, I had this to say of ITO EN’s Golden Oolong: “awesome.”
Also awesome were their canned green tea shots: the Sencha Shot and the Maté Sencha Shot. Each featured the rich, sweet and slightly grassy flavor of sencha green tea (surprise, surprise), balanced in the second with the earthen tones of smoked yerba maté. “It’s like a concentrated antioxidant shot,” my host explained as I filled and refilled my sample cup, more impressed with the benefit to my taste buds than to my cells.
And so, here it is: I was wrong. There are good, even great, ready-to-drink iced teas out there.
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The first time I tried chai was in the kitchen of my parent’s house, and served by my younger sister. “You have to taste this—” she insisted, pushing a mug across the countertop to me. She refused to elaborate on its contents. The flavors, she said, would speak for themselves.
The quality of water affects the taste of your tea; this is beyond dispute. The relative quantities of mineral salts, oxygen and trace elements determine the relative "liveliness" or "flatness" of a particular cup. To that simple substance we add the basic flavor of the leaf itself or an herbal substitute.